After facing weeks of criticism from both incumbent members of Kelowna city council and other candidates vying for seats in the upcoming civic election, the five members of TaxpayersFirst have unveiled part of how they say they would pay for no municipal tax increase for the next four years if elected.
Their target: The Regional District of the Central Okanagan.
The TaxpayersFirst candidates, Carol Gran, Graeme James, Dale Olson, Billie Aaltonen and Michael Gorman, say with Kelowna paying nearly 80 per cent of the cost of the regional district because it is by far the largest municipality in the Central Okanagan, and because it holds a majority of the director positions on the RDCO board, it could force through the changes that would see Kelowna save as much as $5 million per year alone as a result of streamlining its services. The civic party claims many of the services it provides are being duplicated by member municipalities.
Much of the work done for the two unincorporated areas of the regional district– Okanagan East and Okanagan West—could be handled by Kelowna and West Kelonwa they say.
But $5 million per year that could be saved would not make up the amount needed to cover the loss in revenue to the city of no annual property tax increase.
So to cover a larger portion, TaxpayersFirst say they would take what they feel is the “under-utilized” 10-acre site the regional district office building on KLO Road now sits on, as well as the land the Okanagan Regional Library building occupies next door, and divide it up into as many as six lots that could be sold off to developers.
Sporting an artist’s rendering of large, spiral building that the group says could be build in stages, it would include new offices for the Okanagan Regional Library.
TaxpayersFirst says the city owns both the RDCO and the ORL sites.
Saying the city could realize as much as $30 million to $40 million from the sales of the sites, the group contends the city would easily cover the cost of forgoing annual property tax increases for the next four years.
But when asked if members of TaxpayersFirst had talked to other RDCO municipalities, such as West Kelowna, Lake Country and Peachland, or even the regional district itself, James said only West Kelowna had been approached, and it was “interested.”
Stressing its no-tax increase plan would not cut any city services or programs, Gran and James—both of who have sat on Kelowna council in the past— said their plan show TaxpayersFirst is “thinking outside the box.”
Gran said she knows her party’s plan, or something similar, has been talked about at city hall behind closed doors in the recent past and she and now she and her running mates were simply making it public.
She added the move to reduce the size of the regional district bureaucracy should have been made seven years ago when West Kelowna incorporated.
Following incorporation, many RDCO employees did transfer over to the new municipality to handle the services formerly provided on the Westside by the province through the regional district.
Regional districts in B.C. are mandated by the provincial government and cannot be eliminated. Here RDCO provides services to the entire area such as dog control regional parks, the regional hospital board, the water board, environmental programs like the SIR codling moth elimination program and others, but its role can be reduced if member municipalities are wiling to take on some of the services they provide, said James.
“Restructuring the (regional district) makes economical sense and begins the process of dividing up assets, turning vacant unused land into something we not only need but that is profitable for taxpayers,” he added.
The party also wants to reduce how much RDCO directors, most of whom are appointed members of the Kelowna, West Kelowna, Lake Country and Peachland municipal councils, are paid by holding fewer regional district board meetings.
But it’s not just the regional district that the new civic party has its sights trained on when it comes to cost-cutting.
Gran said she is also concerned about the high cost of benefits that high-salaried city managers at Kelowna city hall get now and will receive after they retire.
She said about a half dozen are due to retire before 2016 and will receive as much as $100,000 each in pension benefits.
“Someone has to say this madness has to stop,” said Gran.
The proposal to sell off and restructure the regional district property is the first of four announcements Gran’s party plans to make during the next few weeks concerning how it would pay for its controversial no annual municipal property tax increase.
While critical of the city’s plan to spend $48 million on a new police building, Gran would not confirm her party wants to see the building build as a public-private partnership. That announcement, she said, would have to wait.
But she said any changes to the plan to build the new public safety building could be made as there is “no hole in the ground yet.”
The building, which has to serve many purposes, including being a police detachment, a jail, a secure storage facility and a emergency operations centre that must continue to function even after a serious incident such as an earthquake cripples other municipal buildings, is slated for Cawston Avenue. Construction is scheduled to start next year and the city has already won public approval to borrow $42 million for the project.