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JONESIE: Blindsiding West Kelowna voters isn't the only way to get a City Hall

February 11, 2020 - 10:31 AM

 


OPINION


If you live in West Kelowna and you don’t think it needs a new City Hall, talk to Mayor Gord Milsom.

He just might convince you.

He’s legitimately one of the nicest guys you’ll meet. Not a hint of arrogance, he’s not aggressive or even really assertive. But he’s steadfast in his convictions and he's convincing. And he says the city needs a City Hall.

He’s one of not very many people who have paid very close attention to West Kelowna since it incorporated in 2007. He’s assessed all the needs and priorities and concluded that finding suitable office space to represent the City and allow its 224 employees to work to the best of their abilities is among the most important needs.

So who convinced him and presumably the rest of council that blindsiding voters was the best political move to make this happen?

Shortly after 1:30 p.m. today, Milsom and his councillors will be asked to endorse a plan to borrow $11 million for an $18 million City Hall.

As I reported yesterday, they have to approve the plan by CAO Paul Gipps right now. In about three weeks, the City will know the cost of its new water treatment plant and it will have to borrow lots of money to pay for it.

Until then, the city doesn't have a lot of debt and that exposes a loophole that says the City doesn’t have to get consent from voters for this debt, the same voters who denied it three years ago — twice.

Very few, if any candidates, indicated this would be coming in the last election. So without ever mentioning it before, and just five days after the general public learned for the first time this plan was being hatched — no public consultation, no open houses, not a single ad or mention or hint — they’ll vote to approve this plan, then likely again in two weeks to cement it.

Whether or not you agree with the actual question, the process they're adopting is disturbing. So much so, the public relations nightmare over the process may threaten to overwhelm the actual merits of the question.

That’s why I have trouble imagining Milsom and councillors came up with it, that they would be so afraid of voters.

Were Milsom the mayor three years ago, I'd wager West Kelowna would already have a City Hall because he could convince people it was the right choice. In 2016, the City spent an entire year on the subject, but not one person on council I recall really endorsed it or championed it. They dropped the ball at the goal line.

That’s why it failed by 27 votes.

There’s a lesson to be learned from Kamloops. Their council adopted the same attitude when a referendum for a high-cost performing arts centre failed in 2015. The idea was revived last year under a groundswell of community support and new councillors aren’t afraid to stump for a position either way. Sure they must go to referendum, but they’re not afraid to engage voters. They're building support. What was once divisive seems to be bringing the city together. 

Milsom and this new council could sell this City Hall in a referendum. They're choosing the easy route and a cynical view that voters can’t be trusted to decide nor, it seems, even the information they would require to base that decision.

They’re choosing to hide behind this window of convenience, rather than do the work.

It gets worse. They’re claiming there’s no new taxes for this and that’s accurate, of course, because the new tax came in six years ago when the city started packing away $700,000 a year as savings for this project. And when this plan is adopted, taxpayers will be on the hook for $700,000 a year in debt repayments for, by my math, another 16 years or so. So it's absolutely correct there's no new taxes. But anything else the city needs for a generation will be added to this pile — and those will certainly be new taxes. Feels like a game of Three Card Monte.

There’s also some big ifs.

The plan proposed by Gipps pegs the cost at $18 million. That’s without a design or a bid. Maybe it will be that price. Then again, twinning Mt. Boucherie arena was approved on referendum for $3.2 million and it turned out to be closer to $14 million. The soccer dome was supposed to be $1 million and came in at over $4 million.

I reported yesterday that another $2 million may be earmarked for City Hall if they have to buy land.

So that’s now potentially $20 million. And what will they do if it costs more? The only thing they can do, which is short term borrowing and likely raising taxes.

Is that worth rushing this?

We’ll find out at council today.

— Marshall Jones is the Managing Editor of iNFOnews.ca

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