Sidewinder: More than one elephant in room

The imminent divorce with Pitt Meadows on recreation makes the challenge more difficult

Maple Ridge city council members have a Herculean task ahead as they ponder the proposed $110 million capital plan for major new recreation facilities.

The decision to not carry out an estimated $6 million in repairs to the current leisure centre may have been correct, but it raises significant challenges for city council and local taxpayers.

The imminent divorce with Pitt Meadows on recreation facilities management makes the challenge a little more difficult. In many ways, it is reminiscent of the plebiscite held by Maple Ridge on the construction of the current Leisure Centre.

With the date for that plebiscite approaching, as a member of municipal council at that time, I was inundated with calls from Pitt Meadows residents complaining that they wouldn’t be allowed to vote on the subject.

On the surface, it appears that approval for capital funding for the construction of any major facilities can be easier than it looks with infrastructure funding promises by the federal government and other capital reserves available, which would reduce the demand on local taxpayers.

There is also a growing interest in the private sector to pay significant sums to local governments for the privilege of having a facility bear their corporate name, such as in the case of Rogers Arena.

The impact on local taxes, however, goes well beyond building the facilities, whether it’s an aquatic centre, an ice arena or a major event centre, all of which are needed. The elephant in the room would be the operating costs, which will almost certainly escalate every year with no end in sight.

If a successful plebiscite is held, there has been a suggestion that the city could take the borrowed funding and let it sit to accumulate interest until needed. That direction is questionable as the Municipal Finance Authority, the normal funding agency for local government borrowing, isn’t likely to be fond of allowing a local government to use its money without some form of sanction.

There is also a legal question that the money borrowed under the terms of a plebiscite cannot easily be used for any other purpose without the further consent of the voters and the Municipal Finance Authority.

Of course, if the city can finance and repay any borrowing in less than five years, no voter approval is required. I’m sure Coun.. Gord Robson will remind his colleagues of the dangers of ignoring the legal requirements for borrowing funds without voter approval.

Other than planning for the plebiscite and any proposed facilities, there is unlikely to be any impact on property taxes for at least one more year, but that timeline might give city council a big headache as they contemplate another elephant in the room, this one not so easily managed.

When civic voters resoundingly defeated the TransLink plebiscite, it didn’t mean the problem disappeared. It merely amounted to a timeout as Metro Vancouver mayors wrestle with how to fund the significant demands of needed transit and transportation improvements.

Maple Ridge, along with all Metro Vancouver cities and municipalities, will probably be faced with some very unattractive options to meet their share of the TransLink bills. That could come in the form of property tax increases, among other proposed measures.

Premier Christy Clark has also thrown local governments an anchor as the province will now require each city and municipality to publish the amount of fees and other charges imposed on residential units, a factor which adds tens of thousands of dollars to the overall cost to home purchasers.

It now appears that, notwithstanding homeless people and other major social issues, Maple Ridge’s mayor and council are going to begin to earn their pay cheques for the next several years.


– Sandy Macdougall is a retired journalist and former city councillor.