UBCM roundup: Mayors rally for ambulance changes 

Meetings kick off at annual convention, resolutions go to vote later in week

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF UNION OF BC MUNICIPALITIES - Learning more A plenary session on the impacts of the recent Tslhiqot'in Supreme Court of Canada decision on First Nations land rights and titles drew an almost full house at the Whistler Conference Centre during the UBCM 2014 conference.
  • Photo Courtesy of Union of BC Municipalities
  • Learning more A plenary session on the impacts of the recent Tslhiqot'in Supreme Court of Canada decision on First Nations land rights and titles drew an almost full house at the Whistler Conference Centre during the UBCM 2014 conference.

Even before any resolutions calling for change hit the UBCM floor this week, B.C.'s ambulance service dominated discussions in Whistler, in hallways and in more formal settings.

At the sixth annual BC Mayors' Caucus on Monday, the topic was one of four main issues that the mayors agreed to work on in the months to come.

"There was quite a lively debate about ambulance service and delivery and about a half a dozen mayors signed up for that one already," said Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who hosted the caucus. "That was the one that really drew my interest as well."

Concerns about ambulance service are on the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) agenda in the form of several resolutions that will be put on the floor later this week.

A Pique investigation last week found that ambulance waits in the Sea to Sky corridor are of growing concern in the region, which has seen record room nights, with more visitors staying here, for the past two summers.

The issue was raised in the first meeting of the UBCM convention dealing with emergency funding and planning for the "Big One" (earthquake), when one councillor highlighted the province's need to fund the paramedic system to do what it is supposed to do.

"That's where the rubber hits the road," said Councillor Dave Hodgins from Esquimalt, referring the emergency planning issues in general at the local level.

In the meantime, however, Whistler is finding it is not alone in its woes at the local government level.

As B.C. communities gather in the resort for the annual UBCM convention this week, it's apparent that many of the problems facing the resort municipality are the same problems for local governments province-wide.

It's not just ambulance wait times. There are common issues of: aging infrastructure and how to pay for it; preparing for emergencies like the "Big One;" the impacts of downloading from higher levels of government; the ramifications of the B.C. Supreme Court decision on aboriginal title and land.

"The old chestnut is true — there is strength in numbers," said Wilhelm-Morden. "So although there may be different nuances to an issue community to community, the basic nub of the issue is common. So, it's fruitful to be able to discuss it with other mayors and start working to solutions."

B.C. Mayors' Caucus meeting

On Monday, Wilhelm-Morden played host to more than 100 mayors from around the province at the sixth annual BC Mayors' Caucus.

The mayors rallied once again to drive home their concerns about the issues plaguing B.C. cities and towns.

"It was like meeting old friends," said Wilhelm-Morden of the group that was formed just two years ago under the leadership of Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts. Wilhelm-Morden has been to all six meetings.

The mayors decided Monday to give the issues better structure, forming sub-committees of the most important topics, with an eye to working towards solutions.

"We're seeing issues that were discussed at the Mayors' Caucus make it to the floor of UBCM by way of resolutions," said Wilhelm-Morden of the groups' effort.

There are four main recurring topics at the caucus meetings and this time the mayors agreed to form sub-committees on each to push their agendas forward and find strength in having a common voice.

They are:

• aging infrastructure;

• ad hoc granting process;

• the municipal auditor general, and

• ambulance service and delivery.

Mayors were asked to sign up to these various committees and then to work on the issues over the course over the coming months and report back at the next mayors caucus in Fort St. John in the spring of 2015.

Resort Collaborative meeting

Whistler also hosted all 14 Resort Collaborative members Monday at its annual gathering.

Together, the communities annually receive $10.5 million in the form of Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funding from the province.

When asked about the mood of this latest meeting, the mayor said:

"Everybody is concerned about the continued existence of RMI. The government has been quite clear that they're looking at the program, its continued existence and how it's going to be administered. So, a lot of discussion about that."

Both Naomi Yamamoto, minister of state for tourism and small business, and Shirley Bond, minister for jobs, tourism and skills training, attended the meeting.

"We received the assurance of Minister Bond that the RMI program is going to stay in existence at least for the short term," said Wilhelm-Morden. "But she said they are looking internally at the program, the way its administered and divided up and there may well be some changes to that."

Asset management and long-term financial planning

With an estimated $160 billion in infrastructure assets province-wide, local governments must turn their attention to dealing with their assets, convention delegates heard this week.

"You need to have asset management plans," said Andy Wardell, director of financial services for the District of North Vancouver, in a Tuesday morning UBCM session.

"When the big earthquake hits, it's going to cost a lot of money."

Wardell showed a graph of North Vancouver's assets. A small portion was highlighted in red indicating poor infrastructure and the need to upgrade.

That work alone was valued at $86 million.

The issue has been on Whistler's radar for the past several years as it works to develop a reserve policy that would guide how much money the resort municipality sets aside every year in savings to deal with its aging infrastructure, which is valued at half a billion dollars.

The UBCM session highlighted the growing percentage of assets now under the responsibility of local governments.

Sixty years ago, 20 per cent of assets were the responsibility of local governments.

Now that number is 50 per cent.

And where once local governments were in the business of just water, sewer and roads, now it's fibre optic lines and more.

Preparing for the Big One

Tucked high in the mountains, Whistler may feel somewhat safe from the threat of an earthquake, but it too will feel the effects when the "Big One" hits.

In the next 50 years, there's a 12 per cent chance that a major quake will hit B.C. and the devastating effects of that will ripple all across the province, even up to the mountains, with the potential for crippling the provincial economy, stymieing transportation and wiping out critical infrastructure that isn't insured. The "Big One" could cost B.C. $75 billion.

B.C. needs to be ready.

"Nothing is going to happen unless you, the elected officials of our local governments, think this is important," Tom Barnes, CEO of the Municipal Insurance Association, told the busy room at Monday's UBCM convention.

He said the status quo isn't acceptable.

"Are you ready for the Big One? Managing a catastrophic event" was one of the first sessions to kick off the weeklong convention, drawing elected representatives from towns, cities, and districts across the province.

"By definition, a catastrophic event will overwhelm us," said assistant deputy minister Pat Quealey with Emergency Management BC (EMBC) and the Ministry of Justice.

EMBC is working on a number of initiatives including more public education and updating its emergency warning technology.

The government is working on a plan and a final report is due by the end of the year.

"This is a continuum of work and it will never be finished," added Quealey.

During the Question and Answer period, Esquimalt Councillor Dave Hodgins didn't mince his words in highlighting that the province must fund local governments to help deal prepare for emergencies like earthquakes.

"That's where the rubber hits the road," he said, of the local level. "The provincial government needs to fund local governments to do the job."

Landmark First Nations decision under microscope

In Whistler, the Tsilhqot'in decision is known as the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that stopped any approval Whistler's Official Community Plan in the appeal courts dead in its tracks.

Its significance — recognition of aboriginal title on a massive piece of land for the first time ever — will change the face of province, and Canada, in the years to come.

And that point was driven home at the UBCM Tuesday.

"You can expect that to have implications all across the province," said Gregg Cockrill, lawyer for Young, Anderson and a panel speaker at the plenary session.

"In terms of legal precedence, the case is huge."

About 1,000 meeting delegates turned out to hear first hand from Chief Roger William and Chief Percy Guichon of the Tsilhqot'in First Nation. William kicked off the session with a traditional drum song and welcome.

"We believe the Supreme Court decision will only improve relationships," said Guichon. "For too long the governments... have somehow minimized First Nations decision-making in all aspects of our lives."

This decision, he added, is the opportunity to embark on a new course, a new direction, a new relationship.

On June 26, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Tsilhqot'in Nation had established aboriginal title over 1,750 square kilometres of territory in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region.

"We were obviously very happy with the decision," said Guichon.

It's still not clear how the decision will effect local governments.

"It's complicated; it's not going to happen overnight," said Guichon.

He added, however, that the federal and provincial government must develop a broad reconciliation framework.

How each First Nations navigates that framework will be different.



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