Local officials in the Sea to Sky are encouraged about the prospects of finally instituting regional transit following a meeting with their provincial ministry counterparts at the annual Union of BC Municipalities Convention (UBCM) last week—but the project is still not a sure thing, and there’s no set timeline for when we’ll see buses on the highway.
Regional stakeholders from Squamish to Pemberton, as well as from the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD), met with provincial ministers George Heyman (minister of environment and climate change strategy), Rob Fleming (minister of transportation and infrastructure) and Bowinn Ma (minister of state for infrastructure) at the convention to once again make the case for regional transit, after which the ministers agreed to “begin work understanding service requirements” in the region, said Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton.
“Our hope is that we can move quickly on this, and that is what we will continue to advocate for,” he said, adding that local officials offered to share some of their own past research conducted for the project.
“They agreed, and we will be contributing a lot of the research and preparation we’ve done in the past,” Crompton said.
“We need to continue to press the province to make this happen. It’s important to them, it’s important to us, and I think we need to strike while the iron is hot.”
Many of the regional officials at the meeting campaigned on implementing regional transit in the 2018 election—will it get done before their term is up in October 2022?
“Certainly that’s my hope and intent,” Crompton said.
Regional transit aside, Whistler’s UBCM agenda was jam-packed with minister meetings, including sessions with ministers Melanie Mark (tourism, arts, culture and sport); David Eby (attorney general and minister responsible for housing); Josie Osborne (municipal affairs); Katrine Conroy (forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development); and Selina Robinson (finance).
The topic of the Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) program—which provides much-needed funds to resort communities to spend on tourism offerings—was broached with Osborne, Robinson and Mark, Crompton said.
The provincial government committed to providing $39 million over three years to the program in its 2019 budget, of which Whistler received about $7.5 million annually.
“We asked that they include [RMI] in the baseline budget again,” Crompton said.
“We’ll continue to stay in touch with them and make that case, and look forward to seeing that happen.”
On housing, local officials asked Eby for “additional funding for workforce housing solutions,” and requested that the province consider removing the Property Transfer Tax that is currently applied to the transfer of lands between municipalities and their subsidiaries.
In Whistler’s case, transferring lands from the municipality to the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA), or from the WHA to the Whistler 2020 Development Corp, comes with added taxation, which “means more expensive housing for the residents of our community,” Crompton said.
“Certainly it’s not high on their list of priorities right now, but [Eby] heard us out and we’ll continue to make that case.”
Following up on a request from Whistler Public Library director Elizabeth Tracy at the Sept. 7 Committee of the Whole, Whistler officials advocated for increased funding for B.C.’s libraries in their meeting with Osborne, and urged her to use her “deep understanding of resort communities” as former mayor of Tofino at the provincial cabinet table.
“We’re hoping and expecting that she is a real advocate for continuing to deliver the kind of important services and funding that the province does to keep B.C.’s tourism industry moving,” Crompton said.
“Her understanding of the importance of workforce transportation, workforce housing, [and] the escalation in the value of homes in resort communities are all things that she’s intimately aware of; my hope is when we start talking about regional transit, that is something that she knows well and she can advocate for on our behalf.”
In the meeting with Conroy, Crompton said the primary topic of conversation was funding for wildfire mitigation efforts like fuel treatment, though Whistler also raised the issue of costs related to its annual Fitzsimmons Creek gravel removal project.
Whistler officials were also pleased to hear that the province is working on a new program to fund local government climate action goals after cancelling the Climate Action Revenue Incentive Program earlier this year, though it remains to be seen what form the new program will take.
Overall, Crompton said Whistler’s priorities of housing, climate and affordability were well-represented at the convention, adding that he was also happy to see united support from municipalities on truth and reconciliation.
“Municipalities have an important role to inspire learning and change within our communities. For me, I see our initial steps in Whistler to acknowledge the harm and trauma that has been created as important first steps,” he said.
“There is more to do—there’s lots more to do—this convention was really helpful in inspiring that thinking.”
This year’s UBCM took place entirely online from Sept. 14 to 17, with about 980 delegates from around the province tuning in for the proceedings, said Whistler Councillor and SLRD chair Jen Ford.
Ford was acclaimed as UBCM’s first vice president at the convention, and at next year’s instalment—scheduled to take place in Whistler—will assume the role of UBCM president.
For as different as all of UBCM’s member communities are, there are some common threads at each year’s convention, Ford said—the two biggest being how local governments are financed and the impacts of climate change.
“None of us can deny that fires in the summer and flooding in the spring and all of the changes that we’re seeing in our communities, and what that costs our communities,” Ford said. “Our infrastructure is being battered by climate change, and we need to update that infrastructure and do what we can to help our communities be resilient.”
On financing, the UBCM is asking for some “pretty strong changes” to the way communities are funded, Ford said.
“It’s really how taxation is shared, because currently we only have access to property taxes, but that doesn’t necessarily fund all of the other things that we do … the pot is small, and there’s really only one taxpayer,” she said.
“How that money is divided out to the communities where it’s needed, and what we can do with that funding, really needs a complete overhaul.”
Another common thread for communities across the province is the need for more childcare, which Ford said Minister of State for Child Care Katrina Chen is receptive to.
The new spaces added to the Whistler Waldorf School recently, as well as the new centre set to open in Rainbow neighbourhood, are helpful, but “it hasn’t been solved yet,” Ford said.
“We’re certainly still working on it … it’s never not been an issue for our community, but it’s certainly been highlighted in recent months.”
THE VIEW FROM PEMBERTON
Childcare was also a UBCM priority for the Village of Pemberton, which in conjunction with the District of Squamish raised two key points with the province at the convention: making sure wages for Early Childhood Educators are keeping pace, and flexible criteria around provincial funding for new spaces.
A resolution on the second point didn’t make it to the floor at the convention, but Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman came out of a ministerial meeting “cautiously optimistic” that flexibility would be granted for the two communities.
“With the cost of doing business here in the corridor these days, there’s no way we can meet their threshold [for the New Spaces Fund],” Richman said.
“Our application has been sent to another level of consideration, and the minister was quite responsive, so I’m cautiously optimistic that our application is not dead, and we will continue to work with them to try to get that application approved so we can build some much, much needed childcare spaces.”
A second Pemberton resolution—asking for funding support to manage post-COVID-19 tourism influxes—also missed the convention floor, but was a topic of discussion in meetings with the tourism ministry.
Communities in the SLRD recognize the importance of tourism, and embrace it, “but the numbers we’re seeing and the level of backcountry travel that we’re seeing are incredibly high,” Richman said.
“And we need support on the ground to make sure that the wilderness and ecosystems are preserved, and to make sure that the forest fire dangers are mitigated.”
With provincial ministers fielding so many different priorities from all corners of the province, is there concern that local asks get lost in the crowd at UBCM?
“[The ministers] are extremely attentive, [and] they have teams of staff that are there taking notes,” Crompton said.
“I’m confident that they go away from those meetings understanding what our challenges and requests are.”