Answers to critical questions come too little, too late
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On Tuesday, Brandon City Council will give third and final reading to the southwest waste-water servicing bylaw, that — if passed — will give the municipal government the green light to borrow at least $30 million to build two lift stations and new forcemains.
Manitoba’s Municipal Board has already approved the $30 million borrowing for the southwest lift station project, and we have little doubt that this council will move ahead with some form of the project.
We have openly questioned council’s actions regarding this project over the last year, particularly after it became apparent that council was considering a plan to move ahead with both phases of the project at once, which would effectively double the borrowing cost and push this community far closer to its borrowing limit.
We did so, because it seemed as though many aspects of the plan, and the impacts it would have on city finances and community ratepayers, had not been made public — and in some cases at least, not made obvious to citizens of this city. And as more questions were raised, with unsatisfying answers given, the apparent lack of due diligence and council’s need for better transparency began to cloud the issue at hand.
In order to offer the public more information on the project and its impact before council went ahead with second and third readings of the borrowing bylaw, Coun. Kris Desjarlais (Ward 2) requested a second public hearing be held to help answer some of these outstanding questions. That public hearing was then held Jan. 23 of this year, in front of a crowd of ratepayers who also voiced their concerns over the cost and need for expanded development on Brandon’s southern quarters.
And at the end of that meeting, after listening to the concerns of those in the room, and after at least a few councillors mentioned having received a significant number of emails and comments on the subject, councillors raised a series of followup questions for the city administration before any final decision would be made on the borrowing bylaw.
Interestingly, the answers to those questions were given late this week in a supplemental report that accompanies the Tuesday council meeting agenda distributed Thursday.
One councillor asked administration to look into what existing grant opportunities were available to fund the project. And as we have already previously reported, the Manitoba Water Services Board offers a municipal water and sewer program that could potentially offer a 50 per cent grant for projects “with economic benefit to Manitoba and the municipality.” Provided council approves, administration plans to apply to the program for Phase 2 of the project.
But last summer, I suggested the city should look at other levels of government for financial help, only to receive a letter from then-mayor Rick Chrest last September stating that tri-level funding programs “tend to focus on the largest investments in a community and the more modest network investments such as lift stations and water and sewer mains are generally handled at the local level such as the case here in Brandon.”
Given the fact we had already received funding for the water treatment facility, he maintained we would not be eligible for additional project funding.
In short, no one in the administration bothered to check until a councillor asked the question, even though in columns and editorials we had asked that exact question at least six months earlier.
We had also asked what the projected municipal property tax revenues for the new developments would be after their completion, and we were told that could not be properly calculated with any accuracy. That in fact may well be true, and yet administration came back in this report to state that at “full buildout” annual municipal property taxes will be $10 million, calculated at 2023 rates. That includes the expected construction of 5,000 residential units and 800,000 square feet of non-residential units, over the next 30 to 35 years of growth.
Quite the crystal ball there. I have to wonder which answer is true.
Here’s another one: perhaps you may recall a column by Deveryn Ross last September suggesting that Brandon would be edging very close to its debt ceiling by voting in favour of this borrowing bylaw, which would thus tie the hands of council for other major projects down the road.
That question was also finally asked by a councillor on Jan. 23, and the answer came in this report that the city would reach 86 per cent of its borrowing limit as a result of this debenture. But apparently this shouldn’t be a concern?
While there are several other answers to councillors’ questions in this report, one more that caught my attention was whether there were options for more affordable housing in these new developments. The answer: according to the Planning Act, a zoning bylaw may require a specified percentage of new dwelling units within a development to be affordable house.
However, “this was explored under a previous council and did not proceed due to the extra costs incurred by developers/builders.”
Instead of suggesting council combine such a requirement as part of the southwest wastewater borrowing discussion, administration has recommended that such inclusionary zoning for affordable housing “be dealt with separately as a strategic action item.”
This, even though there are several programs in existence, such as the federal Affordable Housing Innovation Fund, that could aid both developers and councillors on such costs and plans for the southwest developments.
It seems clear to me that several of these questions should have been asked and answered by council and administration a year ago or more — not on the eve of council’s final reading of the borrowing bylaw. How can we have a fulsome public discussion without this kind of information at the front end?
In short, we can’t. And obviously, we still haven’t.
» Matt Goerzen, editor