Wildfires, housing, and even artificial intelligence will all be up for discussion when municipal officials from across the province meet in Vancouver next week for the 2023 Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) Convention.
Whistler Councillor Jen Ford will be at the helm—or at least seated on the panel—for most of those conversations.
“It’s a really broad agenda,” said Ford, who doubles as chair of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) board of directors. She was acclaimed as UBCM president at last September’s convention in Whistler, after steadily rising through the ranks since she was first voted to the union’s board in 2018. “We have the biggest early registration ever, so it’s going to be big and exciting,” she said. “There’s lots to talk about.”
UBCM presidents typically only hold the post for a single one-year term, meaning this year’s event, set to take place at the Vancouver Convention Centre from Sept. 18 to 22, is likely Ford’s sole UBCM convention as president.
The convention’s schedule is usually decided months ahead of time, after speakers or organizations pitch possible workshop, policy session or panel topics to the union. “We got over 140 submissions this year, which is huge,” said Ford. A committee is tasked with deciding which ideas to lock in, based on the conference theme—this year’s is “Balancing Act”—and emerging issues impacting B.C. municipalities.
Some pre-planned topics were shifted this summer to make room for more timely discussions related to fire management and emergency preparedness, as the province battles its worst wildfire season on record, Ford said.
Though Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman is looking forward to attending those events as an audience member, he and other Village of Pemberton (VOP) officials plan to raise a few issues of their own during the five-day conference.
In particular, he’s asked for time during a community forum to speak about RCMP costs for small communities. “It’s something I try to find every opportunity to bring attention to and to try to change … so it’s a more transitional approach to the funding model,” said Richman.
The province pays the bulk of policing costs for communities of under 5,000, but once a population exceeds that limit, its local government's share of policing costs spike. B.C.’s Police Act requires municipalities with 5,000 to 14,999 people to cover 70 per cent of policing contract costs, while the federal government pays the remaining 30 per cent.
The VOP's population reached 3,407 people in 2021, according to the most recent census.
For a community like Pemberton, that surge could represent a massive strain on the municipality’s budget, Richman said.
“When you look at the fact that this increase in cost could increase our taxes by more than double digits, and the fact that so many of our resources get sucked out onto a provincial highway, it to me points further to the fact that the system doesn’t work,” he said.
Pemberton will put forth one official resolution to be voted on by delegates at next week’s conference, asking the union to call on the province to extend the same tax exemptions and assessed value methodology offered to rural-area farms to farmers located within municipal boundaries.
The issue was brought to Richman’s attention a few years ago, when the VOP was considering a boundary extension, he said.
“We found out that farms within municipal boundaries aren’t eligible for the same tax exemptions as farms in electoral areas,” he explained. “So, when we were looking at a boundary expansion and bringing some of the farms into our boundaries, that was a real issue, because obviously folks don’t want to lose their exemption, and it’s pretty important for farming, which is tough enough business as it is.”
With no current plans to extend Pemberton’s boundaries, “It’s not something that’s really directly impacting us right now, but considering that we are an agricultural community, in terms of food security and respect for agriculture, we feel that it’s an important item to be addressed,” Richman continued.
Though the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) won’t be putting forth any of its own resolutions at this year’s convention, resort officials have requested meetings with nine provincial ministers to chat local priorities: Josie Osborne, Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovations; Finance Minister Katrine Conroy; Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Minister Bowinn Ma; Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon; Minister of Education and Childcare Rachna Singh; Bruce Ralston, Minister of Forests; B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma; Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport Lana Popham; and B.C. Premier David Eby.
There’s no guarantee all those meetings will be granted.
Though the VOP’s request for a meeting with provincial officials to advocate for clinic expansion was denied, Richman’s request to meet with B.C.’s Municipal Affairs Minister Anne Kang about support for a new fire hall was successful.
Pemberton outgrew its existing fire hall “years ago,” Richman said. Pemberton Fire Rescue also provides service to the SLRD’s Electoral Area C and Lil’wat First Nation, Richman pointed out, “so this is pretty important to us.”
Throughout his years attending the annual UBCM convention, Richman said he’s found the long, jam-packed days are “often very productive, especially for smaller communities that don't get audience with ministers and those sorts of meetings on their own."