Last meeting we approved a provisional budget. After several months of work by Council and much, much more by staff, a 5-year financial plan was presented that included Capital and Operational budgets for both the General Fund and the Utility Funds. The next step is for staff to forge these into Bylaws that can be read and adopted by Council – a process that needs to be completed by the end of April by regulation. But first Council has to approve the 5-year plan in principle.
In a move that is no longer surprising, an Amendment motion was proposed late in the discussion that sought to derail much of this work. Not in a way that allowed staff or Council to meaningfully deliberate the changes proposed, but in a way that appeared to be (and I’m not saying this was intent, I’m saying this is how it appeared to me, recognizing one cannot really know what is in another’s mind) more of an attempt to score talking points. And I’ll detail why I got that impression, but first, I want to talk about the Amendment.
The Amendment that arrived in front of Council at almost literally the 11th hour is a list of 12 different shifts in line items, projects, and plans in the City, with little rhyme or reason. All were framed as initiatives to reduce the burden on property taxpayers by reducing the proposed 6.4% tax increase. I cannot bury this key point, so I’ll underline it:
*Not a single item in this list, if approved, would have any effect on the proposed 6.4% tax increase. Not one.*
It is also worth emphasizing that many of the items sought to undermine years of work by different departments based on long-standing strategic plans and sometimes years of community engagement, advisory committee work, and partnerships in the community. This is not good governance.
So beyond the headlines, here’s some detail:
The biggest line item was “Eliminate $46,337,399 in funding allocated for the District Energy Project in Sapperton”, and this is emblematic of the entire Amendment.
The District Energy Utility (“DEU”) is a project the City has been working on for some time, similar to successful projects in Vancouver and Richmond. It is still conceptual, because it needs several things to come together for it to be successful, some of them outside of the control of the City (like pace of residential development and global energy prices). The City has been carefully evaluating market conditions, and has been building partnerships and raising external funding to support the financial modelling and design work. When the business case is right, when the known risks are managed, we need to be ready to move.
As we have received external funding support in anticipation of these factors coming together, we have a line item in our Capital budget to support the capital cost of building the DEU. That is the number that appears above. Cutting this from the budget means the DEU doesn’t go forward, now or ever. It seems to me good governance would include a deeper conversation about that (including with our funding partners) before we throw away years of work by striking a red line through it during budget deliberations.
Perhaps the more important aspect of this is that the DEU will not be funded by property taxes. The “U” stands for “Utility”, and it will be operated as such. The people who will pay for the DEU are the customers of the DEU – the people and businesses of the new buildings that hook up to the DEU and receive the benefit of resilient, carbon-free, and affordable space- and water-heating provided from sewer heat recovery. The entire point of the DEU is that the capital cost (somewhere around $50 Million now, it may be more or less depending on how it is built and when) will be covered by rates paid by customers, supported by some external grants and value gained in the carbon credit market.
Cutting this out of the budget now and spiking the project on a whim will do nothing to change property tax rates, now or in the future.
There is also a line item here that suggests we “Eliminate $15,321,089 in funds earmarked for the installation of advanced ‘smart’ meters”, effectively ending the Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI) project.
Again, this is a capital project paid through Electrical Utility rates, so it will not impact Property Tax rates, but that is not the most baffling part. The City has already invested in the IT work to support integration of digital meters, and we have already signed the contract to purchase 40,000 next-generation electrical meters. Taking away the Capital budget for their installation and integration now is a strange request, as we already own the meters. They would become very expensive doorstops.
But let’s talk about the Advanced Meter initiative, and why we are doing it, because not all of you have the benefit of lengthy onboarding that the Councillor moving this Amendment had access to, or serve on the Electrical Commission like the Councillor who seconded the Motion does.
The City’s electrical meters are old and overdue for replacement. The mechanical meter technology we rely on is harder and harder to get inspected and certified by the regulators, because of their age. They are becoming less reliable, and repairs are challenging. At the same time, Utility customers have been asking the Electrical Utility for more information about energy use, more consistent billing, and even more innovative rate structures to support EV integration, building electrification, and conservation. We can do none of these things relying on 1950’s technology meters. Even if you don’t think digital meters are a good thing, and don’t value those benefits, I don’t think throwing away the investment already made in new meters and keeping the failing older technology in place provides any benefit at all to utility ratepayers.
There are other items in this list that are out of left field like cutting $2M from the BridgeNet capital plan (another thing not paid for by property tax payers, but by service users and ISP partners, who maybe we should talk to before we toss away our development plan?) to a random cut of almost $5 Million in the Capital budget to make long-needed improvements to the sidewalks and commercial streets through the Great Streets program. Some other line items point to familiar grievances like the Queens Park Farm upgrades (not sure why a motion to not update the farm area after two years of consultation and design work that failed earlier in the day during workshop ended up back here only hours later to fail again?) or adding a few hundred thousand dollars to the whistle cessation line item (when staff have repeatedly made clear it’s not lack of money that is preventing faster implementation of whistle cessation).
It is important to note that none of the numbers in this laundry list have been verified, nor has there been any analysis of the impacts of these cuts on existing programs, on long-term strategic plans, or on the people and businesses of New Westminster. No public consultation, no business analysis. Just randm numbers on a sheet of paper.
This is why several Councillors, surprised and confused by the suggestions, fell to using language like slapdash, knee-jerk, and crazy when referring to the content of the Amendment, and why Council, in its wisdom, voted this down.
There is another conversation to have here about intent, and that is harder. Especially when one sees the first proposed change: “Establish a $1 budget for the City’s rebranding for the rebranding process aimed at eliminating the Royal City moniker”. We didn’t debate this in Council, but it is not difficult to infer intent here. But I am going to hold off on talking about that for now, because I don’t want that necessarily-political discussion to distract from the cold facts above about why the Amendment was misdirected, misinformed, and unsupportable.