Directors revisit emergency services funding

The lines were drawn after Gold River director Brad Unger said he wanted to reconsider a motion, defeated at the Feb. 26 board meeting

It was a showdown between Campbell River directors and those representing the smaller communities at last week’s Strathcona Regional District board meeting.

The lines were drawn after Gold River director Brad Unger said he wanted to reconsider a motion, defeated at the Feb. 26 board meeting, to increase funding for the Strathcona Emergency Preparedness Program. Unger, who opposed the motion – along with Campbell River directors Andy Adams, Michele Babchuk, Charlie Cornfield, Larry Samson and Sayward director John MacDonald – changed his mind after talking with Gold River’s emergency coordinator.

“I missed how important it was for our community,” Unger said at last week’s Wednesday board meeting. “I think it’s a little more important to reconsider and it’s only a small increase each year over the next five years.”

Regional district staff were recommending $12,000 this year, $13,000 in 2016, $13,500 for 2017, $14,500 in 2018 and $15,500 in 2019. That money was to make up for a loss in funding from the federal government’s Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP) which supported emergency management training, developed Emergency Operation Centres and provided for emergency communications equipment. The Strathcona Regional District successfully secured more than $45,000 in JEPP grant funding between 2009 and 2012.

Howie Siemens, the regional district’s protective services coordinator, said the increased funding toward the emergency program would “provide the opportunity to better address weaknesses in the program to ensure a basic level of service delivery (and) provide the emergency program the ability to do more work with municipalities, electoral areas and their community members to empower them to become better prepared for what could be a long recovery process from a major disaster.”

Area D Director Brenda Leigh said she couldn’t understand why the Campbell River directors weren’t on board.

“It’s a very minuscule amount of money for the emergency preparedness budget and it does fill the gap left with the cut in the JEPP grants,” said Leigh who pointed out that in the event of a disaster, communities will largely be left to fend for themselves.

Director Samson said he voted against the motion the first time because municipalities have the ability to use their own municipal revenues to enhance emergency services to fit their own needs, rather than relying solely on a basic regional approach.

Director Cornfield agreed with Samson, saying that municipalities “can take funding from taxation to augment any of the services, including disaster relief,” and he pointed out that there are grants available to municipalities for enhanced service.

But Cortes Director Noba Anderson said she couldn’t make sense of that argument.

“I just struggle to see the rationale for non-support given the small dollar amount and I just wonder if there’s something else going on,” Anderson said.

Director Ron Kerr, the only Campbell River councillor to support the initiative, also wondered what was going on.

“On this issue I haven’t had any other discussions with any other directors and for the life of me, I don’t understand, when we have such a small dollar amount here, why we’re even having this discussion,” Kerr said. “We know this is an area that is underfunded, we know that we should be putting more attention on to this, we know that disaster doesn’t have boundaries and I think it’s really short-sighted not to support this.

“That’s my position – I know I’m running contrary here – but I don’t understand all this conversation, to me it’s straightforward.”

Director Adams, who is also Campbell River’s mayor, said the bottom line is it’s extra money put on Campbell River taxpayers that doesn’t necessarily need to be levied.

“We’d all like to do more and there is only so much to go around,” Adams said. “If you want it, pay for it, but if you don’t want it then that’s your choice. In this case we have a regional service that’s provided and we’re asking for an addition. For those who want it, pay for it. We’re happy with what we’ve got.”

Director Cornfield noted that Campbell River, being the largest of the communities, would pay for the lion’s share of the service – roughly $7,900 of the $12,000 being proposed in 2015.

But Director Leigh argued that with more people living in Campbell River than in the other communities, the cost would be more widely spread out.

“Just because Campbell River’s portion is two-thirds of it, the actual impact to the taxpayer is the same across the region. Each taxpayer in Campbell River and each taxpayer in Area D will pay the same tiny amount,” Leigh said. “One-tenth of a penny, that’s what we’re arguing about here, which in consideration of the seriousness of how we respond during an emergency or disaster is nothing. It’s nothing.”

But the Campbell River directors, with the exception of Kerr, could not be swayed and Adams, Babchuk, Cornfield and Samson voted in opposition as they did at the previous board meeting when the motion first came to light. Though the majority of directors voted in favour, because it was a budget matter, the vote was weighted and the votes of Campbell River directors (who represent the largest demographic of voters) are worth more points than those of the other directors.