Corridor trying to sort out implications of Liberal cuts 

Locals who need social services, have court dates, or need help from a conservation officer will feel the bite of provincial cutbacks announced last week.

The Liberals, fulfilling campaign promises to bring in a balanced budget, have slashed social and other services in the corridor and around the province.

"The liberal government is putting budget before people," said Marguerite McCrae, acting-chairperson of the B.C. Government Employee’s Union local in Squamish.

"The loss of jobs is a huge concern but beyond that and what is even bigger is the loss of services for people who really need it and need help to access them."

There is no total yet on how many in the corridor will loose jobs or be forced to work in other locations, said McCrae.

But 30 people at the Squamish Income Assistance office were handed pink slips Thursday, Jan 18. The office will close March 31, 2003.

The office and other Ministry of Human Resources services under threat help people from Squamish to D’Arcy.

Anyone needing those services will likely have to travel to Vancouver.

The Squamish court house will close June 1. After that date anyone involved in a court case from Whistler or Squamish will have to travel to North Vancouver to have the matter heard.

Pemberton court, which sits four days a month, will continue and will likely be staffed out of North Vancouver.

The Squamish court closure left one person holding a pink-slip. One staff member took early retirement and other staff are either moving jobs to North Vancouver or Vancouver.

Whistler RCMP Staff Sgt. Hilton Haider said the court closure in Squamish won’t have a great impact on the detachment.

"I don’t think it will create much of an inconvenience because if (officers) have to travel to Squamish anyway it is only 45 minutes further on," said Haider.

"There will be some inconvenience for us but I think we will be able to take it in stride."

Whistler Mayor Hugh O’Reilly said discussions are under way to see if it’s possible to move some hearings to Pemberton, which is closer than driving to Vancouver.

"We think we have a strong case that will say this will make delivery more efficient and save everyone money, then that may be something they will consider," said O’Reilly.

"We are not reacting immediately. We are trying to gather information, better understand it, while recognizing at the same time that the province has significant challenges. We want to provide solutions not just complaints."

But the effect will be devastating for those who use court services said Melany Crowston, program co-ordinator of the Howe Sound Women’s Centre Society.

"We have enough problems working within the criminal justice system now and we have at least local representation," she said.

"Now we are looking at women who are fleeing violent and abusive relationships having nowhere to go.

"And trying to get them into Vancouver to get them to court, trying to get them into ministry office to get social assistance, is just going to be impossible if they have to travel to Vancouver."

Crowston said most of those using the court services don’t have the money to get to Vancouver for help.

"Twenty dollars worth of gas to go back and forth, well, that could buy milk for a family for a month," she said.

Crowston said the Society and many other groups plan to lobby the government to try and soften the cutbacks.

The closure of the Squamish court is part of a province-wide reduction in staffed courthouses from 68 to 44.

The closures are necessary because many of the courthouses are under-utilized and in need of costly repairs or upgrades said local MLA and Minister of State for the Community Charter Ted Nebbeling.

"The capacity is solid but 55 per cent of all cases dealt with at the Squamish courthouse are traffic fines or bylaw violations," he said.

But court workers, who want to remain anonymous, question Nebbeling’s statistics.

They say the Squamish court spends six hours of court time a month dealing with traffic disputes. Four days of every month the whole court, including the judge and staff, moves to Pemberton to preside over all manner of disputes.

The balance of court time, 13 days, is dedicated to dealing with criminal, youth, family, and small claims.

Information published in the Vancouver Sun last week stated that the Squamish Court worked at 106 per cent of capacity. North Vancouver Court, which will absorb Squamish, works at 86 per cent of capacity.

The long-term plan, said Nebbeling, is for municipalities to take over the administration of traffic and bylaw disputes, removing them form provincial court.

That could become a reality as early as next year following the government’s adoption of the new Community Charter this fall.

"One of the reasons we have considered local governments to have the right to have their own bylaw court is that bylaw hearings are bumped for more serious cases and in consequence governments have not been able to collect the sums they were due," said Nebbeling.

"That is a lot of revenue that the local governments are entitled to that and they are not getting it because the system doesn’t work for them."

Nebbeling said the government’s decision to shut down the Squamish court house was also influenced by a bill for at least $4 million to upgrade the building.

"Considering the caseload it is not an acceptable expenditure," he said.

While no conservation officers are being cut at this time from the Squamish office their mandate has changed slightly.

They will no longer respond to "low-risk human wildlife conflicts." So anyone with a bear in the backyard or up a tree is likely on their own.

Nebbeling has met with the Minister of Human Resources, Murray Coell, over concerns about how people in the corridor will cope with the closing of the Income Assistance office.

"I had a meeting with the minister... speaking specifically about this because I think closing Squamish as an office, which had a caseload far below the average made some sense. But at the same time I wanted the minister to be aware that this office provides services for agencies far beyond Squamish and all the way to Anderson Lake," said Nebbeling.

A 1-800 number may be put in place to help those who have been using services about to be axed, said Nebbeling.

There is even some discussion about making bus passes available for those who need to travel to the Lower Mainland.

"It is my hope that somehow a contact will be created so that people can actually get bus passes to get to the city because a lot of these people do not even have the bus fare, I know that," said Nebbeling.

"I would be very concerned if the ability for people to get where they need to go in a humane way is not available. I don’t want a person, man or woman, to stand along the highway hoping for a lift on a cold winter day.

"I will be watching. I find it very important."

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