Distribution of FairShare spending was a hot topic during a public information session and forum this week.
“It’d be nice to have the money to spend it on the wants you want, but you should never forget about the needs – the actual needs,” said Alvin Stedel, who attended the Tuesday meeting.
Many of the people who attended meetings about the FairShare spending this week felt that more of it should go towards infrastructure.
The meetings, which were held in Tuesday and Wednesday at the Encana Events Centre, were part education session, part public forum, and partly a chance for the City to see what its citizens believe it should do if the FairShare funding were to go away.
The meetings began on Tuesday night, where citizens gathered for a public information session. Citizens were given information about FairShare funding; how Dawson Creek's tax rates compare to other municipalities, and the history of the project.
FairShare began in 1994, where citizens in northeastern B.C. communities whose infrastructures were strained by oil and gas development received a portion of provincial funds in response for these stresses.
Since it began, this share of the funding has grown. Last year, the City received $10.8 million dollars for this project, or about a quarter of all the money the city received from taxes and other sources.
In 2013, the City will likely receive millions of dollars from FairShare. This could make up nearly a quarter of the Dawson Creek's entire revenue to pay for both its day to day operations (in its operating budget) and the repairs, renovations and new buildings that it wants to build (its capital budget).
According to plans brought forward by city officials in both Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, these numbers are expected to rise in the future.
By 2019, the last year of the current phase of FairShare funding, that number is expected to be $75 million.
For people like Nathan Chiles, an employee in the local financial service industry, the curiosity about what could happen to this funding.
“I just had a basic knowledge that the city receives funds through the province,” he said. “That’s why I came out here, what might happen if it happened to grow.”
Part of his concern was also about the changing nature of the funding, as FairShare is tied to industrial growth in the northeast.
Brian Downie, president of the Dawson Creek Ratepayers Association, also attended the meeting and shared his concerns.
“What happens if those gas lines don’t get put in?” he asked. “What happens if the Chinese buy from Australia? We have no control over market conditions so everything on the drilling conditions is based on so many factors we have no control over it.”
He believed that the city should spend more of its funding from FairShare on infrastructure. According to figures presented at the meeting, in 2012, about $8.4 million is spent on the City’s operating budget, while about $2.4 is spent on infrastructure.
Downie said he feels the City has “a ton of (infrastructure) issues.”
“We have an $8 million sewer infrastructure that’s going to bite us in the tail,” he said. “We have a $57 million dollar possible pipeline … We have roads that are starting to fall apart because nothing’s been done.”
The next day, Downie and about nine others were present at the Encana Centre for a meeting where they played the role of a council. The meeting included both residents and those community organizations who receive FairShare money and accepted an invitation by the city to attend the meeting.
At the meeting, some attendees also expressed concerns about spending.
“The spending has gone right out of control,” said one man. “I think, boy, our streets are going down.”
He suggested that if more money were spent on basic infrastructure, “by 2020, we’d have an enviable town.”
Another man who attended the meeting also suggested that more funds should be put into reserve for when major problems or needed infrastructure fixes are presented to council.
“There’s always going to be a problem,” he said. “Where’s the rainy day fund?
For these council members, they had to manage a budget where the FairShare money had to be taken away.
To help with this process, the city hired a consulting firm, Gagnon Strategix, to guide the process. Strategix will take comments from the meeting and present them in a report to council, which they hope to complete later this month.
“(Wednesday)’s event was community stakeholders and residents, anybody who wanted to roll up their sleeves and talk about FairShare funding and the financial planning and moving forward,” said Evan Parliament, a consultant with Strategix. “The fear of this council and any council should be post (2019). What if we lose (FairShare)? What if they pull the plug, now what?”
One strategy suggested at the meeting was gradually cutting down the project over the years, to potentially reduce the shock if the FairShare funding were to go away.
Parliament said that his organization will work to incorporate these comments into their report, as well as come up with plans for a possibility of different FairShare funding risks.
“For example, if the oil and gas sector slows down, what kind of risk is out there, economic and financial risk,” added Parliament. “We’re going to come up with some strategies to buffer and shield the City of Dawson Creek from that eventuality.”
Along with these plans, Parliament said that the citizens also suggested new governance models, such as a given councillor taking certain responsibilities for parts of the city budget, and more transparency from city government about how and where money is spent.
Another idea presented by meeting attendees was the need to identify what services are “core” and needed, versus those that are “non-core” and not needed.
“(The meeting attendees said) we need to identify what core services are in the municipality,” added Parliament. “If there is core services, let that be funded by taxes … if there’s a cut in FairShare funding, that’s subject to non-core services.”
For those who were not able to make it to Tuesday or Wednesday’s meeting but would still like to have their voice heard, Parliament encourages people to contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parliament said council has given them a deadline to hand his report in by the end of January, but said extensions could be given.
He also said the council hopes to have the report to use in their budget discussions later this year.