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UBCM convention to discuss policing costs

Four-year terms also contentious issue for local governments

As Whistler prepares to host the annual Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) conference next week, local government leaders are preparing to discuss the two most pertinent topics: RCMP policing costs and the extension of council terms from three years to four.

The provincial and federal governments are currently working on a new RCMP contract that may result in even higher policing costs, paid for by the municipalities.

"Every place is very anxious about this. The cost of policing is almost not sustainable anymore," said Barbara Steele, first vice-president of the UBCM and a Surrey councillor. "Whistler is in with the whole group of us. Everyone, in fact."

Currently, the municipalities don't have a say in negotiating RCMP costs. On Wednesday, Sept. 29, the UBCM delegates will consider a resolution that Steele hopes will have some sway with the provincial government.

"We can insert our issues as we continue to do but what the final outcome is anybody's guess," Steele said. "We're hoping that it's in favour of the municipalities."

The hope, she said, is that the federal government will kick in more money to help local governments out.

The UBCM has no authority or law-making abilities. Rather, it's a policy-setting body that acts as that common voice for all B.C. municipalities. The resolutions made during the week will not be law, but Steele said the province takes into consideration what they decided.

"The hope is for greater accountability and greater input from local government," said Mayor Ken Melamed. "Right now we only have an observer seat at the table. We'd actually like to have a vote and speaking presence in that negotiation presence."

He said he has experienced "a high level of frustration," not just personally, but from the leaders of communities like Surrey with larger police forces and much larger budgets than Whistler.

B.C. has the highest usage of RCMP resources in the country. Under the current contract, Whistler pays 70 per cent of policing costs, with 30 per cent paid for through government subsidies. Larger communities like Surrey pay 90 per cent - and that cost might go up.

"I would actually say that I'm not optimistic," said Melamed, who has seen policing costs in Whistler increase 52 per cent - from $1.7 million to 2.7 million - since 2005.

"The trends are that despite appeals from local government, senior governments do largely make decisions largely in their interests. That's to be expected and so I'm not optimistic that I will be successful but that doesn't mean that we stop trying and making sure that our concerns are voiced."

Steele said that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) is fighting the same battle at the national level. Whatever resolution is reached on Sept. 29 th will be taken to FCM discussions later in the year.

But at this point Steele said it's too early to tell what the UBCM delegates will decide.

"It's a huge, huge issue for everybody in the UBCM and the discussions are still ongoing. It's still too early to predict what's going to happen," she said.

With the extension of council terms, however, it's much more black and white. Those opposed tend to cite the same argument - it's hard enough attracting people to commit to three-year terms in smaller communities.

"They're told that it's just a few hours a week and it never is," Steele said. "Places like Surrey, it's considered a full-time job. In Vancouver, it's the same."

In May, a joint government task force recommended that the UBCM change election terms to four years. The discussion has come up several times in the past and has been rejected by UBCM delegates. But following the task force recommendation it appears to be an agenda the province and many municipalities are willing to move forward with.

Steele said that municipal budgets tend to work in cycles of five or 10 years. With three-year election terms, councils are only just getting started with programs and issues when faced with another election. An extra year will allow for more follow-through from local governments, she said.

"I think that's going to be quite a discussion and a very healthy discussion and I wouldn't want to guess what the vote is going to go as," Steele said.

In July, Pique asked Whistler councillors for their thoughts on four-year election terms. Only Ted Milner and Chris Quinlan were for it. Mayor Melamed wasn't clear on the issue, and when asked again this week, he said, "There are pros and cons."

"What it comes down to is a personal valuation of every individual of when they make that decision, whether they're going to stand for local government," he said.

He added that he thinks the issue is basically a fait accompli and B.C. will see four-year terms for local governments.

Steele said that whatever the UBCM delegates decide, the provincial government would enact, to be effective as of the next election, scheduled for November 2011.

But even that's up in the air. There's another motion on the table to change the election month from November to October, as many communities experience low voter turnout due to snowy conditions.

"It's mostly based on the weather. It's just easier to get out, campaign during September and October than it is in November," Steele said.

She said she doesn't expect the discussion to be as heated as the election terms debate because for many communities, particularly in the Lower Mainland, weather rarely affects voter turnout.

The UBCM conference will be held from Sept. 27 to Oct. 1. It's expected to bring 1,400 delegates to Whistler, as well as most members of the provincial legislature.