Village responds to taxation concerns

Ashcroft Mayor Jack Jeyes responds to negative feedback about the utility rate increase, senior's discount and fire truck purchase.

Dear Editor

On behalf of Council I would like to take this opportunity to provide information on a number of items that are currently being discussed within our community.  While we truly appreciate comments and input from our citizens we would like to provide some clarity and correction of some of the information.

Purchase of a New Fire Truck

Fire ratings are determined by the Fire Underwriter’s Survey office which is an independent body that collects data from communities and regional districts around the province by conducting surveys.  The data from the surveys is compiled into a report and this report is then provided to the Insurance Underwriters Association who in turn assigns a risk classification to each community.  A major component to this survey involves the number and age of fire response vehicles.

The Fire Underwriter’s Survey office has advised that they will not consider recertifying a fire truck that is more than 20 years old for communities larger than 1,000 people. This is a hard and fast rule, there are no exceptions and the Village therefore has no option but to purchase a new primary response vehicle.

In the event that we fail to purchase this vehicle the owner of every building within the Village’s response area will see their risk classification increase which will result in an increase in insurance premiums, this includes all Village owned buildings. Again, the Village has no control over or ability to change these rules.

The Village currently has $198,000 in the Fire Department Reserve Fund.  This fund was started with $112,000 after the 2003 Firestorm because the Village had provided service to the Province. In the 13 years since its inception we have been able to increase it by around $6,000 per year.

The Village is currently undertaking an Alternate Approval Process (AAP) where we are asking the public to allow us to borrow up to $500,000 for the purchase of a primary fire truck.  We have issued a request for quotes on two different styles of fire truck and will closely compare all of the quotes before a decision is made. All fire engine chassis are built in the US and therefore they have to be paid for in US dollars. This is causing us a concern as we all know how our dollar compares however as outlined above we have to keep moving forward.

The one positive in this process is that the loan has a current interest rate of 1.25 per cent. Once the contract is signed it will take 12–14 months for delivery of the truck so the process is a long one.

In the 20 years since the last truck was purchased a number of regulations have changed regarding the truck and various fire equipment. Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) must be worn by all firefighters while they are actively fighting a fire and each unit costs around $5,000. As the department requires a minimum of 10, the costs add up quickly. The new standard for this equipment is that they be rated at 4500 psi while our current ones are rated at 3000 psi. To meet the new standard we must purchase and install a new compressor system which could cost up to $100,000. It is not reasonable to think that during a fire these air bottles could be taken to Cache Creek to be refilled while the firefighters stand around waiting for new air bottles.

It’s because of this type of expense that Council does not wish to spend all of our reserve funds on the truck and it takes a long time to build the reserves back up. Once the new truck is in place, Council can review the reserve fund balance and can always pay down the loan without any penalties. And yes, we have researched and there are no grants available for this item.

If 148 qualified electors feel that the Village should not proceed with the purchase of a fire truck, then Council will be obligated to hold a referendum on the issue which will cost the taxpayers $5,000-7,000. If the referendum ultimately fails, the Village is less likely to attract new businesses and residents due to the reduced level of fire protection. Please consider this issue seriously before you file an Elector Response Form.

Increase in Utility Rates

The Village last increased water and sewer user fees in 2006, almost 10 years ago. During that time we have undertaken major upgrades to our sewer system that allows us to operate completely within our operating permit. We also recently been awarded over $5 million in grants from the Federal and Provincial governments towards the upgrades at our water plant. These upgrades will eliminate turbidity from our water and will ensure that all residents have access to clean healthy drinking water.

The current user fees are not sufficient to cover the operating costs with an amount set aside for future upgrades and repairs. Over the last 15 years, local governments are being held to a higher standard of planning and now, as part of the grant application process, we have to include a capital replacement budget. This isn’t a bad condition as it will ensure that every service we offer will have a savings account for future needs.

The removal of the additional discount, which applies only to the utility user fees, to those residents who qualify for the additional home owner grant (basically those over 65 or disabled) is a difficult decision for Council. We recognize that costs are going up and in many cases incomes are not increasing at the same rate.

In 2015 50 per cent of our homeowners qualified for the additional grant. The amount of user fees that were not collected (as part of the grant) was $53,000. In 2021, if the number of people who qualify for the additional grant remains the same, the amount of “lost revenue” because of the grant will be almost $90,000. To recoup these fees, annual user fees would have to increase by $150 per year for everyone.  And as we all know the baby boomers are aging faster than people are being born, so the percentage of seniors within our community will certainly increase.

We are aware that many of our seniors are living on fixed incomes. However, many of our younger residents are also employed in the service industry and are earning moderate wages. Often the day to day expenses for the younger families are considerably higher than older residents as they are still working towards paying off a mortgage, raising children and saving for post-secondary education. In many cases the amount of disposable income is the same or less that those receiving pensions. We asked ourselves if it was fair to expect the younger generation to supplement the cost to supply services to those who are over 65.

The Village does not have the authority to conduct a means test, however we are investigating the possibility of still being permitted to offer a discount to home owners who rely on the Senior’s Guaranteed Income Supplement or qualify for the disabled home owner grant.

Overall, myself and Council, believe that the Village is being operated in a fiscally responsible manner. We are extremely fortunate to have secured over $5 million in funding towards our water system upgrade. We are tasked with ensuring that there is revenue to cover all operating expenses as well as have some funds in a savings or reserve account for large or unexpected expenses.

If you have concerns or questions please contact one of us to discuss them. Our numbers are listed below.

Jack Jeyes, Mayor (250-453-2259) and councillors Al Mertens (250-453-2358), Alf Trill (250-457-7447), Barbara Roden (250-453-2045) and Doreen Lambert (250-457-3934)