Trent Ernst, Editor
The Northeast BC Resource Municipalities Coalition is on rocky ground after three more municipalities withdrew last week.
Back in September of last year, the mayors of these communities, plus the mayor for the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality formed a coalition, called the Northeast BC Resource Municipalities Coalition, quite pointedly not inviting the rural directors of the Peace River Regional District.
From its start, the coalition was founded on shaky ground, with Hudson’s Hope deciding not to join the coalition. Then, in January, Dawson Creek pulled out.
Now, three more communities have left the Coalition, with Tumbler Ridge, Chetwynd and Pouce Coupe all stepping away from the coalition, leaving on Taylor, Fort St. John and the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality as members.
Mayor Don McPherson says the decision was made by council last week to withdraw. “Our Council felt the direction of the South Peace Communities was more along the line of where we wanted to go, he says. “The objectives between the two are similar, but the coalition wants to wait until the current agreement, while the communities of the South Peace are interested in negotiating now.”
McPherson says there was some disagreement amongst the coalition about the PRRD regional directors. “A lot of the communities thought they should be included. They weren’t a part of the first Fair Share, but they are a part of this one, and they get a gatekeeper’s allotment. They haven’t asked for more but they wanted to be a part of it.”
“The Province’s goal is to have a new agreement in place by April 30, 2015,” writes Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development Coralee Oakes in a letter sent out to the Mayors of Chetwynd, Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Hudson’s Hope, Pouce Coupe, Taylor and the chair of the Peace River Regional District on February 24.
The current Fair Share agreement sees a base of $20-million given to the Municipalities of the Northeast, plus an indexed amount that grows (and shrinks) based on the total taxable assessment in the region. In the decade since the agreement was signed, that amount has grown to over $40-million.
According to PRRD estimates, if the amount of development keeps growing as expected, Fair Share will be worth over $75-million by 2020.
While the PRRD has expressed interest in having a new Fair Share agreement in place by 2019, the government’s new timeline has caught many flat footed.
According to the letter from Minister Oakes, “concerns have been raised that a lack of certainty on the existing MOU beyond 2019/20 was impacting the ability for some communities to adequately plan for future needs. Given these concerns, the Province believes that there is a compelling and urgent need to see the issue of extension to the MOU to 2030 resolved expeditiously in order to provide stability and certainty to those communities. Renewal of the agreement will provide communities with the substantial benefits of long-term security and the opportunity to raise other issues of regional significance. It will also give the Province the opportunity to work toward its goal of a renewed agreement that grows at a rate that is affordable to all taxpayers.”
The Province has appointed Mr. Dale Wall, former Deputy Minister of the provincial government, to act as the primary negotiator on behalf of the Province. “Recognizing that all municipalities and the regional district are equal signatories to the current MOU,” writes the Minister, “it is the Province’s expectation that negotiations will be conducted directly with all local governments in the region. Paramount in this approach is ensuring that the signatories have established the necessary governance and have identified the appropriate individual or individuals to negotiate on their behalf.”
PRRD Regional Director and former board chair Karen Goodings says she’s not sure if the government is saying it wants to negotiate individually with each government or not, but historically, she says, it was negotiated as a group. “Last time, it was a team, basically made up of all the CAOs, and it was everybody at the Regional District table. They worked together. They did not do an individual basis.”
She says the communities need to work together on this. “The worst thing that could happen is we are divided. If we don’t stand together, we are in serious trouble. The province has said they want to see this happening sooner rather than later.”
She says while the government has sent the letter, they need to make the first move. “They need to make an offer so we can negotiate.”
Mayor McPherson says he’ll know more about what’s happening on Thursday when the PRRD Board meets. McPherson represents Tumbler Ridge on the board. “As a community, as a Council, we think there’s more power in us staying together. There’s going to be one agreement, and you’re either going to be a part of that or you’re going to have to swallow it.”
McPherson says he’s not surprised that the Government wants to talk Fair Share now. “We talked to Minister Oakes when we were down in Prince George at the Local Government Leadership Academy (LGLA) training in Prince George. We didn’t talk much about Fair Share, but I got the sense they wanted to talk about it.”
Council has asked former MLA Blair Lekstrom to represent Tumbler Ridge at the negotiations. McPherson says council’s goal is to keep the current five year agreement in place, and allow Lekstrom to negotiate on our behalf. Lekstrom says he will be representing Tumbler Ridge, Dawson Creek, Pouce Coupe and Chetwynd, and is waiting to hear from the PRRD rural area directors, who are meeting on Thursday. He says it’s too early for anyone to have a list of demands, but he thinks it is certainly possible to have something negotiated within the province’s deadline. “The current Fair Share agreement is a good document,” he says. “And we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. The key will be to sit down with government and see where they’re coming from. If they have any issues, we can talk about it then.”