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Cortes Island first responder referendum back on the table

Strathcona Regional District passed motion at last meeting to get elector assent
The bylaw for a referendum on whether Cortes Island Fire Department expands its service to include first response for medical emergencies is back on the table. File photo/Campbell River Mirror

The Strathcona Regional District will be going ahead with its referendum for first responder service. The question now is when.

The SRD board had put the matter on hold earlier this year following the launch of a legal petition by 14 people against Area B Director Noba Anderson. The petitioners allege conflict of interest against Anderson in connection with a GoFundme page. The crowd-funding campaign started to help her father, who lives on the same Cortes Island property after his cabin burned down in January 2018. The petitioners also allege several donors received work or are with groups that received financial support from the regional district for the donations.

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In response, the board put a number of Cortes issues on hold, including the first responder service, at the Jan. 24 meeting, until the regional district could get a legal opinion.

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At the March 13 meeting, the board voted to bring the matter back. Anderson also made a motion for the maximum amount to be requisitioned as the greater of $45,000 or the equivalent of $0.1443 per 1,000 of the net taxable value of land and improvements in the service area. She explained the wording considers assessment and allows the regional district to respond to inflation.

“If assessments go up over time, there is an allowance for that maximum taxation amount to go up,” she said, “so that we don’t have, 20 years down the road, the maximum is still [$45,000] and yet everything else has gone up…. This is a pretty standard clause.”

During the discussion, some members wanted the matter to proceed to referendum quickly. Both Anderson and SRD staff pointed out though, first responder service, if approved by voters, cannot be added to the budget until next year’s financial planning process, so there would be no advantage to holding the vote soon. SRD manager of corporate Tom Yates clarified it could cost around $15,000 to hold a referendum, regardless of whether there are one or two ballots, whereas having a separate referendum for each issue would effectively mean double the cost.

The other referendum for Cortes is a proposed hall tax to fund community group operations. The board is still waiting for further information. Citing efficiency reasons, Anderson said she hoped both issues can go to referendum at the same time, though she added if the hall tax still faces an impasse in the fall the SRD board could go to referendum for the first responder service so that it can be included in next year’s financial planning plan, assuming it is approved by voters.

“I’m still anticipating that they’ll meet at the referendum process,” she said. “My hope certainly would be that we get to both of these by the end of spring.”

Area C Director Jim Abram asked Anderson whether she might face some “push-back” from the community if the SRD delays going to referendum on the first responder vote.

“No doubt, I’ll get push-back,” she said.

Area D Director Brenda Leigh said she thought is was a “shame” the first responder service was not moving forward ahead of the hall tax issue, which she described as “more complicated.” She suggested using an alternate approval process (AAP).

“I think the first responder should be dealt with soon. It’s an important service and should go through an alternate approval process,” she said, adding, “Take your time on the other one.”

Yates responded from looking at the votes against in the non-binding referendum last fall, an AAP would likely generate at least 10 per cent opposition and force a reference anyway.

Both issues went to a non-binding referendum during last October’s local government elections. For the first responder service, 546 voters agreed the SRD prepare a bylaw to establish first response service, while 84 people opposed. In November, the SRD board decided to move ahead with the binding referenda, but held off in early 2019 following the court petition launched in January.

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