Letter: Spending, borrowing in West Kelowna needs to be done wisely

Isn't safe, reliable water more important than buildings?

To the editor:

A news release http://www.districtofwestkelowna.ca/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=343 from the City of West Kelowna is intended to ‘clarify’ the debate on the new city hall versus the water infrastructure projects and contains the following comment: “The funding for water system improvements does not come from the same sources as the new City Hall would.”

The difference, according to the news release, is city hall costs will be repaid through property taxes while the water infrastructure costs will be repaid through utility bills.

Does knowing how the city will get these funds (taxes vs. utility bills) make any real difference when it is the same person paying the ever-increasing bill?

The mayor suggested (June 2016 Mayor’s Message) there is a need to “get the facts out there” but this news release exemplifies a poor example. Hopefully, the media consultant that council is spending $25,000 of taxpayer funds on, will insist on truth, accuracy and honesty to get the facts out there and not use tactics intended only to support a Yes vote.

Since council is well aware there is a lot of taxpayer mistrust on the city hall issue (see Aug. 9, 2016 council meeting agenda item 9.1.2 documentation) why issue a news release that adds zero value to the debate and only adds value to the Yes vote?

The question is: Can taxpayers afford the $54 million water infrastructure improvements for safe, reliable water, along with the funding the remaining projects and plan to pay for a new city hall at this time?

Respondents to the 2016 Citizen’s Survey provided a clear indication (60 per cent) to council they want property taxes frozen, even if it meant a reduction in municipal services. Council seems to have ignored this and that water infrastructure was rated as No. 2 in importance in the survey results (second only to roads).

However, they didn’t take the opportunity in this survey to ask how much support/understanding there may be for water utility bills that may have to double, triple, or ? to pay back the debt created by the water infrastructure project on top of the required three per cent property tax increases.

The 2016 West Kelowna Citizen’s survey results shows that 70 per cent of respondents rate the importance of water quality as ‘very high’ (the highest rating on the survey). Isn’t  safe, reliable water more important than buildings?

We have had ongoing water quality issues this summer with one water system, but we also need to recall that last summer West Kelowna also had issues with the water supply (storage reserves were low) which caused the implementation of stage 2 water restrictions. Water problems are not going away and may become more urgent in the future with climate change.

Many letter writers have expressed concerns there is currently a glut of vacant buildings on both West Kelowna and Westbank First Nation’s land (including new buildings that have never been leased). Based on these vacancies, some have suggested we leave city hall where it is and lease additional space elsewhere or bring in more portables.

However, city council wants to overbuild the new city hall with the vision of renting out excess space until needed for future city staff.  Most taxpayers would believe a commercial (but not in the public interest) lease agreement for a publicly-owned building is a venture government should be avoiding. However, West Kelowna council believes leasing unused space in the new city hall should become a fundamental part of their plan.

Others have suggested with the low interest rates we should be borrowing to improve our infrastructure. While we can’t predict where interest rates might be once the water improvement project (arguably the most expensive and health-impacting in the list of master plans) starts we can assume they can’t be much lower than today.  Borrowing money in the current environment makes sense, but we need to spend it wisely.

 

T. Kinsman, West Kelowna