WEATHER ALERT

Public largely opposes city’s $30-million loan

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Residents overwhelmingly opposed the City of Brandon’s proposed $30-million loan to facilitate construction of two new lift stations during a public hearing Monday evening.

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Residents overwhelmingly opposed the City of Brandon’s proposed $30-million loan to facilitate construction of two new lift stations during a public hearing Monday evening.

Approximately 40 people sat in the gallery in council chambers for the public hearing, more than were present for the first hearing held last July.

Just one speaker at Monday’s event — a representative of a developer with interests in the affected area — spoke in favour of the project.

A member of the public holds up a sign opposing the southwest lift station at Monday's public hearing. (Colin Slark/The Brandon Sun)

In light of the weight of the project, Coun. Shawn Berry (Ward 7) successfully called for the deferral of the second and third readings to a city council meeting in February.

After the project became controversial last year, Coun. Kris Desjarlais (Ward 2) called for a second hearing on the matter before putting the bylaw to a final vote.

City staff and developers previously said development in southwest Brandon would stop very shortly unless the wastewater system in the area is expanded as the current system nears capacity.

Before speakers presented their views, several written submissions were read out, including one from Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Tanya LaBuick. While the chamber supports growth, she wrote, it still has questions about the debt the city will incur to pay for the two lift stations and whether ongoing economic factors could worsen the conditions of the loan over time.

City manager Ron Bowles said later in the hearing there weren’t any government programs Brandon found through which to apply for funding for the project.

Recently, the city’s director of finance, Tara Pearce, said the city was seeking assistance from the Canada Infrastructure Bank to reduce its interest rate.

LaBuick also asked if the city had pursued funding from other levels of government. She stated that if the city doesn’t draw a clear line between the potential costs and benefits of the project like the number of jobs created, the chamber and taxpayers would continue to have reservations about the project.

Other written submissions criticized the project, stating that existing neighbourhoods and services need upgrading before the city expands. There were also concerns about the increase in utility rates.

The first speaker, Ray Brownlee, said his opposition toward the project came from the debt load Brandon would take on as well as its ability to pay it down.

“I spent 44 years in the real estate industry in Brandon,” he said. “My experience is that if you have high interest rates … the first area that gets affected is new construction.”

Every speech made in opposition to the project was given a boisterous round of applause from the audience. One viewer held up a piece of paper that read: “Vote no to rich developers’ $30 million pumping station.”

Should the proposed developments not be built, Brownlee said, it could put greater pressure on residents to pay for the loan.

Before the city borrows millions of dollars, Brownlee said, changes to the developer cost charges should be made so the city has a greater idea of what kind of income will be brought in.

Quentin Robinson said he was worried about developments in southwest Brandon being so close to a class four wetland and how that could lead to flooding problems for commercial and residential properties.

Brandon's director of planning and buildings Ryan Nickel outlines a brief timeline of the southwest lift station project at Monday's public hearing. (Colin Slark/The Brandon Sun)

“Did we learn anything from 2011 and 2014?” Robinson asked, referring to floods in those years.

Tristan Lepischuk, who attended last week’s open house on the project, said it was a mistake to develop the city away from the Trans-Canada Highway and that this project is a want, not a need for Brandon.

One woman walked up to the podium to speak of something that has transformed since the project was first proposed 10 years ago — climate change.

She said there is a limited amount of time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before catastrophic temperature increases threaten lives and livelihoods, and cities like Brandon need to rethink adding new big box stores and houses instead of densifying existing neighbourhoods, which is more environmentally friendly.

Coun. Shaun Cameron (Ward 4) commented that the Canada Infrastructure Bank is more likely to approve support for carbon-neutral projects.

Former city councillor and Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell said at the podium he had been struck by the unanimity displayed by previous speakers against the project and the questions they raised need to be answered before the city requests the loan.

Citing previous experience as the provincial minister of municipal relations, Caldwell called the potential approval of the project “very bad public policy” and said the near doubling of water rates as a result would be unacceptable in any community.

The final speaker of the evening made the point that in 2011, when the project was first identified as a priority, the economy was much stronger with the Canadian dollar valued higher than its American counterpart and the oil industry booming. It’s not the same situation in 2023.

Bowles, answering speakers’ questions, said the loan wouldn’t be issued until the city needs the money and the city typically borrows from the provincial government, accessing its more favourable borrowing rates.

He also said the city always applies for borrowing approval at a higher than estimated interest rate and the final loan will reflect the actual interest rate being charged.

Brandon’s director of planning and buildings, Ryan Nickel, pointed out only nine per cent of the water rate increases are due to the lift station project, with the rest coming from other factors. According to him, an outside consultant determined in a study the project would have a positive economic effect on the community.

Representing one of the developers with interests in the area was Steve McMillian of J&G Group. He asked if the 18th Street lift station could be built first, to service the land earmarked for commercial development in the south end.

He also asked if the scale of the lift stations could be reduced to save some money.

To grow its tax base, McMillan said, the City of Brandon will need residential land available to develop like in the southwest.

A member of the public speaks in opposition to the southwest lift station project's $30-million debenture as another holds up a sign expressing a similar viewpoint at Monday's public hearing. (Colin Slark/The Brandon Sun)

Regarding the wetlands, McMillan said they won’t be touched or filled in and his company is working with partners to make sure provincial regulations are followed.

After the public speakers concluded their presentations, Coun. Bruce Luebke (Ward 6) said there is a provincial water program the city should apply for and asked if there was a possibility that a public-private partnership could be sought for the project.

Before deciding, Desjarlais said he wanted best- and worst-case scenarios for collected development cost charges in upcoming years.

Spinning off McMillan’s comments, Coun. Tyson Tame (Ward 10) asked about the financial impact of pursuing Phase 2 (the 18th Street lift station) instead of Phase 1 (the 34th Street lift station) first.

He also called for development charges levied on projects in areas the new lift stations would service to go directly toward paying down the $30-million loan instead of to the general fund.

Berry wanted to make sure residents understood that more than one developer has interests in the area, something he said had only been noted by McMillan. With the risk the city is taking on with the project, Berry said he needed to see updated development cost charges to help him figure out the risk and reward balance involved.

Going forward, he said, the city needs to amend its bylaws to make sure if a project is above a certain dollar amount, it needs to find a funding partner to make it happen.

Beyond impact on developers, Coun. Barry Cullen (Ward 3) expressed concern that not going through with the project could harm local tradespeople who would carry out building new residential and commercial properties.

After telling the Sun last week that he supports the loan, Coun. Glen Parker (Ward 9) said the city can afford to take on the debt from the project under its current financial state.

» cslark@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @ColinSlark

History

Updated on Tuesday, January 24, 2023 1:18 PM CST: Clarified comments made by Brandon Chamber of Commerce presidentTanya LaBuick.

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