An SFU professor says ratepayer fatigue is a possible cause for the highly unusual results of an alternate approval process that could force a referendum on the new Squamish District public works facility.
“That doesn’t happen too much, especially for things like public works, because, you know, usually most people like to have the toilet flushed,” said Andy Yan, program manager for the city of the university.
It is rare for the electorate to force a referendum on an essential piece of infrastructure.
Perhaps the last time something like this happened in Squamish was in 2005, when residents overwhelmingly voted against a big loan in a referendum. At that time, the municipality was asking permission to borrow $20 million for community amenities and recreational facilities.
In this case, it is not clear if the municipality will choose to hold a referendum on this question, or if it will make a second attempt at an alternative approval process.
Alternate Approval Processes, or AAPs, are initiated for big decisions, like large loans, and allow residents to vote against a proposal. If 10% of eligible voters vote in a PAA, then the issue must go to a referendum, where the public decides whether or not to accept the municipality’s proposal. The municipality may waive a referendum in favor of holding another alternative approval process, but best practice suggests that the proposal should then be modified to address public concerns.
However, this case is particularly special because it concerns the core of municipal operations, rather than recreation or amenities.
Yan said there were a number of questions about the AAP outcome, such as whether the district made a clear case for the need for the structure.
“It could be one of those combinations of voter fatigue things; of a feeling of, you know, ‘Is spending out of control? Is spending in the right places?'” Yan said.
It is also possible that the municipality assumed that a loan for the facility would be unopposed.
“The sense of entitlement is also a problem. It’s to say, ‘Oh, it’s a public workshop. So, of course, it has to be adopted.’ Well, no, I think a lot of people want to get their money’s worth.”
On March 1, district staff revealed that about 1,700 voters had expressed dissatisfaction with the current proposal to borrow about $16 million to help fund the new public works building, which was originally expected to cost $20 million. of dollars. The rest was to be financed by the sale of municipal assets.
The municipality has identified the aging building as being in critical need of replacement.
The structure’s costs have also since increased to about $23.8 million, which would require a more expensive loan of up to $19 million.
Regardless of the increase, municipal bureaucrats say that if the municipality is unable to borrow money, it will result in higher taxes for residents.
A loan of about $18 million would mean an annual cost to residents of $9.50 per $100,000 of assessed property value. Commercial owners would pay $24 per $100,000 of assessed value, according to district staff. This is essentially what the original proposal asked for, but this option is likely to be rejected due to the alternative approval results.
There are two other options.
The first is to fund the project entirely from property taxes, creating a costlier scenario of $68 per $100,000 of assessed value for residents and $175 per $100,000 for commercial properties.
At the March 1 meeting, district financial analyst Rolland Russell said the average tax for a million-dollar home was about $2,200. Property tax funding would add about $700 per year for two years, bringing it to almost $3,000 for each of those years. He said that would be an increase of about a third.
The second option, financing the project through the sale of municipal properties, staff said, is an unappetizing proposition that would take a long time and leave the city with fewer assets.
Another possible reason for the votes against the loan could be Squamish’s changing demographics, Yan said.
He pointed out that due to population growth, a good portion of Squamish’s population did not live in town as of the last census year of 2016.
“At least 20% of your community wasn’t there five years ago,” Yan said, so for newcomers a big loan right after moving to town can come as a shock.
“It’s like, ‘What, you want me to spend money on this now?'”
Regarding some of the cost saving suggestions, Yan said it is not easy to skimp on a public facility.
One suggestion from the public was to increase the number of remote workers, thereby reducing the need for office space.
Yan said it’s possible in some cases, but there are projects and departments where working remotely isn’t enough.
“Even throughout the pandemic, many building departments were still operating,” Yan said. “So, you know, yeah, people were physically distancing, but they weren’t logging into it. And some office work is Skypable, but a lot of that, some of that detail and municipal works-type operations are not.”
Contracting out public works services would not eliminate the need for a public works facility because, at the very least, there still needs to be a place to store heavy machinery, he said.
“You don’t necessarily want to outsource everything…because then that’s also [creates] some challenges in terms of service standards,” he said.
This type of facility would not be considered equipment and therefore could not be funded through community equipment contributions.
Squamish Forward, a local political group, posted calls online for better functioning of the municipality.
One of his last posts was an online petition encouraging people to vote against loan authorization under the alternative approval process.
“We can tell Squamish Council that we do not agree to millions in new spending and a property tax increase,” the message read.
Gord Addison, an organizer for Squamish Forward, said his online petition was not the main driver of votes in the alternative approval process.
Addison said the credit for gathering voices belonged to those who collected signatures outside grocery stores.
As for the goals his group had with the online petition, he said the goal was to generate conversation.
He said self-contained buildings were a thing of the past and said his group was working on a follow-up article regarding the results of the process.
Previously, the group had posted on its website the idea of creating combined buildings like the municipal hall and school board office to offset construction costs to replace aging structures.
“We just want to generate discussion,” Addison said.
Com. Eric Andersen also posted on the Squamish Forward website months ago telling Chief Squamish he was not supportive of the results of the alternative approval process.
He said he was not affiliated with the group.
“I was approached by a third or fourth generation member of a local family to participate in this dialogue initiative with an opinion piece. I learned that there were various people involved who I respect as active citizens,” he said.
“I was not informed or consulted on the subsequent initiative of a petition against loan authorization for the public works building project, and I certainly would not have approved it. The result was, in fact , a surprise to me. It’s disruptive and costly to the District and its real needs.
He said the result was frustrating.
“I don’t perceive any orchestration with malicious intent behind it. But the actual effect is another matter,” he added.