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Water, water everywhere, but . . .

The starting point for all of Parksville
The starting point for all of Parksville's water, Mount Arrowsmith.
— image credit: Auren Ruvinsky photo

The uncertainty surrounding senior government funding for a $37 million water supply system has Mayor Chris Burger painting grim scenarios for Parksville taxpayers.

The things that are certain? The health authority has deemed all groundwater destined for homes in Parksville and Nanoose Bay must be treated by the end of the year. The cost of a new system, as presented by officials Tuesday, will cost $37 million — $27 million for Parksville, $10 million for Nanoose Bay.

The City of Parksville was planning to put a referendum question on the November ballot, asking voters for permission to borrow to build the system. However, the city — actually no municipalities in B.C. looking to access senior government funds for infrastructure upgrades — has no clear idea on how, when or if they will be allowed to apply for federal infrastructure money, a $14 billion fund (Quebec and Ottawa signed an agreement Wednesday that freed up $5 billion for municipalities in that province).

"In the event we don't get funding and we have to move forward, which I believe we have to do, it could dramatically increase our DCC rates (money charged to developers for infrastructure upgrades)," Burger explained Tuesday after a meeting of the Englishman River Water Service (ERWS) management board. "If that happens, then it could dramatically reduce the amount of development that occurs in the next little while. If that occurs, then those funds, the monies that come from that development, which are actually set to fund more than half of this entire (water) system, will not materialize, and if that occurs, the commercial and resident ratepayers will have to pay the entire bill."

Burger said Tuesday a report on potential scenarios prepared by city CAO Fred Manson — the possible effects of the water-system costs on DCCs, water rates and taxes — will be presented to city council on July 7. Burger would not release any of those numbers this week.

The mayor said he will also be asking council on July 7 to pass a motion asking Island Health to grant the city an extension on the water-treatment deadline.

"I have no way to predetermine whether or not they (Island Health) will even consider it, but it's one of the options we need to knock off," said Burger. "And maybe we get fortunate and they . . . do allow it (the delay in implementation of treatment). It's one of the questions I've recently asked our MLA (Michelle Stilwell)."

Parksville Coun. Marc Lefebvre, like Burger, sits on the ERWS management board, which is chaired by Regional District of Nanaimo chairman Joe Stanhope.

"I know the immediate reaction for a lot of people in Parskville is they are not interested in a $27 million tax bill," said Lefebvre.

The answers the city gets from senior levels of government and Island Health — and the timing of those answers — may also determine if there is a referendum question on the municipal election ballot come November.

"I'm not personally supportive of going into a referendum where we can't provide detailed answers for people (on funding levels)," said Burger. "But that's a council decision."

On Tuesday in city council chambers, the ERWS board listened to a detailed report about the proposed system, its costs and public input received to date from Mike Squire, the ERWS program manager. He showed the board and the dozen members of the public who were at the meeting where the intake facility will be located (between Top Bridge and the Inland Highway) and other details about the system.

Squire said the good news is people in this region use more than 30 per cent less water per person, per year, than the B.C. average.

"That shows the message is getting out there and people are doing the right things to conserve water," said Squire.

He also pointed to public input received through two online surveys, but he could not point to how many actual responses were received in this manner, which made some members of the public in attendance Tuesday skeptical about the statistical significance of that data — estimates floated at the meeting suggested it was fewer than 100 responses online.

Squire did present data on what was said by representatives of 26 stakeholder groups, which included residents' associations, business associations and even a class of youth at Ballenas Secondary School.

One of those members of the public who spoke, former Parksville mayor Paul Reitsma, said he wasn't confident the city would get a favourable answer from Island Health about any delay in implementation of the treatment order.

Reitsma called Island Health "a non-elected body . . . they really don't care about the taxpayers in Parksville."

Resident Elaine Hofer told the board she didn't think there has been enough public input. Squire and Burger pointed to dozens of meetings and open houses about the subject.

"I really disagree with the suggestion there hasn't been much public input," said Burger. "We have gone a number of routes (for public input options) and we have been talking about this for more than a decade."

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