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PAYING THE HIGH COSTS OF POLICING HIGHLIGHTS DISCUSSION AT COMMUNITY FORUM
The current funding formula to pay the high costs of policing in British Columbia doesn’t make a lot of sense and is soon going to have a major impact in Osoyoos and Oliver, said the mayors of both communities during a community forum in Osoyoos last Thursday evening.
Southern Interior MP Alex Atamenenko, Osoyoos Mayor Stu Wells, Oliver Mayor Ron Hovanes and Mark Pendergraft, vice-chair of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen (RDOS) and representative for Area A voters in Osoyoos, all participated in the community forum, which attracted 30 members of the public to a meeting room at the Sonora Community Centre in Osoyoos.
The four elected officials voiced their concerns about local issues for about one hour before allowing members of the public to ask questions.
Wells shared his concerns about the current funding formula, which sees all the costs of policing paid for by the federal government for towns with populations less than 5,000.
With the latest Canadian census showing both towns are very close to exceeding 5,000 in population, it would have a significant impact on local taxpayers and local budgets, said Wells.
“When you get over the 5,000 mark, you get bit hard,” said Wells to an audience of 30 residents who participated in the community forum, organized by Atamanenko. “I think the process is flawed. I don’t know why they picked this number of 5,000. Why not 6,000 or 17,000?
“Down in Okanagan Falls, even though they have a population of 6,500, they have never organized so they don’t have to pay for policing. It’s not fair.”
Because of this dilemma, members of Osoyoos town council are going to have to enter into “serious discussions” during upcoming budget deliberations to consider putting aside significant amounts of money into reserve funds to help pay for the high costs of policing once the town’s population officially exceeds 5,000, said Wells.
“We have to start asking, ‘should we be putting money away into reserves so when we go over (5,000 in population), we’ll have the money there to pay for police or at least be able to phase it in?’ ”
“In essence, we’ll be pre-taxing people. It’s a real dilemma between putting money aside now or waiting until we go over 5,000 down the road and letting the people who live in town then pay for it.”
The Town of Summerland started putting money away under the same scenario a few years ago and was able to make a relatively easy transition to pay for policing costs once the population in that town grew over 5,000 and he’s personally in favour of doing the same thing, said Wells.
Hovanes agreed, saying small-town mayors across the province share serious concerns about the current funding formula and the huge impact it will have on towns that may soon exceed the 5,000 population limit for funding.
“We’re so close to 5,000 in Oliver and I’m really thinking we’re going to go over very soon and it’s going to be a huge hit if we do,” he said.
Numerous other issues were discussed at the community forum, including providing adequate housing for seasonal farm workers, the prospect of metering all water consumption in Osoyoos to ensure water conservation becomes a priority and the current application by FortisBC to bring smart meters to customers in Osoyoos and Oliver.
Atamanenko started the forum discussing his frustration with being a member of the official opposition in Ottawa under the current Conservative majority government.
“I have found it very difficult to get anything done,” said Atamanenko. “I’ve never had to work with a majority government before and it has been frustrating. This government is putting things through with, in my opinion, very little discussion or debate.”
Atamanenko said he has introduced several private members bills over the past couple of years and will continue to work on one where he’s proposing a federal “ministry of peace” that would see a new federal department work with the defence ministry and foreign affairs to promote peace initiatives in Canada and around the world.
Atamanenko said he will also continue to voice his opposition to smart meters and continue research to determine if these wireless devices pose a health hazard to his constituents and Canadians in general.
Pendergraft said he and other members of the RDOS board are continuing their push to have the provincial government invest $160 million to build a much-needed ambulatory care wing at the Penticton Regional Hospital.
The hospital has been functioning at “110 per cent capacity” for several years and a huge expansion is needed to allow the hospital and staff to serve the needs of patients across the South Okanagan, he said.
“We need some community support in this fight,” he said.
During the question and answer session, Wells said he believes town council and provincial health care administrators are going to have to take another look at how health care facilities are being run in Osoyoos.
Almost half of Sagebrush Lodge remains empty and this facility could be used for any number of uses, including a senior’s hostel or place to house transient workers, said Wells.
“It would appear they (province) are really not interested in having other tenants use that building … but it has a state-of-the-art kitchen and nice rooms,” he said. “You would think something would evolve so that building could be better utilized.”
When answering a question about the proposed Enbridge pipeline that would transport raw bitumen from Alberta to northern B.C., Atamanenko said the vast majority of British Columbians oppose this project and he will continue to voice his concerns as the local MP as will other members of his party.
Speaking about the issue of transient workers from Quebec who travel to Osoyoos and Oliver every spring to work in the fruit picking industry, Wells said local farmers are “shirking their responsibilities” by refusing to provide proper lodging and accommodation.
He ran a cherry production operation for years and hired numerous Quebec workers and had very few problems as he provided a clean place to sleep, shower facilities and transportation for them, said Wells.
The myriad of problems that now exist could be reduced drastically if local farmers ensured the workers they hire have a decent place to live and modest amenities, he said.
“This is not a town issue, it’s an issue the farmers must address.”