Council reverses water referendum plans, approves alternate approval process

Permission from Nanaimo's electorate to borrow $22.5 million to build a required water treatment facility won't be sought through a referendum tied to November's municipal election after all.

A referendum on borrowing $22.5 million to build a required water treatment facility won’t go ahead with November’s municipal election.

Instead, permission from Nanaimo voters will be sought through an alternate approval process over the next two months after Coun. Bill Holdom, who was absent for the original decision, recalled the vote.

The original vote June 13 to hold a referendum passed 4-3, with Holdom and Coun. Diana Johnstone absent. Monday’s vote to move to an alternate approval process passed 6-3.

Holdom called a referendum false democracy, since regardless how taxpayers vote on borrowing the money for the $65-million treatment facility, they would still be required to pay for it one way or another.

“The only thing worse than not having a referendum is to have a phony one and give a pretense of democracy,” said Holdom, adding that an alternate approval process isn’t much better, but since the city is required to build the facility to keep its drinking water permit under Vancouver Island Health Authority, it’s the most pragmatic approach.

“There are four ways to pay for this and those are apply parcel taxes, increase property taxes, increase user rates or borrow the money. Whether residents give us permission to borrow or not, they have to pay for it somehow.”

A referendum would cost city hall thousands of dollars more than an alternate approval process, according to legislative services. Municipalities require public approval if a term for borrowing is five years or more.

Under Holdom’s motion, the alternate approval process will close on Aug. 31 at 4:30 p.m. and will require 10 per cent of the electorate, or 6,268 people, to sign a petition indicating they do not want City Hall to borrow $22.5 million to build the water treatment facility. If the petition falls short of 10 per cent by the deadline, the city deems electorate approval has been granted.

Coun. Fred Pattje, who prior to his election to council carried out a successful alternate approval process in 2008 to stop the expansion of Nanaimo’s urban containment boundary to allow for a golf course development, said holding a petition process over the summer months doesn’t provide an opportunity to educate citizens.

“It’s hard to educate people over the summer months,” said Pattje, who supported a referendum. “The issue of borrowing is not an issue for me. How we educate the public is important.”

Council passed third reading on the issue Monday to allow legislative services to begin its advertising campaign to help inform residents on the process and what signing the petition means.

Holdom said since VIHA requires the facility, the organization should have a hands-on approach to assisting the city in providing as much information as possible to residents.

Though the city applied for $32.5 million through the Building Canada Fund, it received $17.8 million from senior levels of government, which set out the regulations that require the water treatment facility to be built under the Canada Drinking Water Guidelines.

Council will find $25 million from a combination of development cost charges, the Community Works Fund, water fund reserves and current user rates.

If the alternate approval process is successful and obtains elector opposition to borrowing, it is likely water user rates could increase by as much as 100 per cent for two to three years to fund the project, then revert back to current levels.

The water treatment facility will use high-tech membrane technology and is expected to be completed by spring 2015. It will meet projected water demands up to 2035 and will be able to provide 116 million litres of drinking water daily.