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BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Pushing for a voice
It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that local officials would like a seat at the Interior Health Authority board.
After all, IHA’s vast bureaucracy is forcing the Regional District of North Okanagan to take some unpalatable actions, particularly given that this is an election year.
The Greater Vernon Advisory Committee will ask voters in November to approve borrowing up to $70 million for phase one of the master water plan. Given that the economy continues to struggle along and there are many other demands for tax dollars, there is considerable uncertainty as to how voters will respond to such a big-ticket item. Also, the future of any politicians who authored the plan is undetermined as they may be labelled as being out of touch with the plight of their constituents.
However, everyone should be abundantly clear that Greater Vernon’s leadership has been given little choice.
The process formally began in March 2011 when IHA issued an order for a master water plan to be developed. Ignoring the order could have found GVAC in legal and financial hot water.
As time has gone on, the plan has developed to the point that the first stage is ready to proceed, including $26.5 million for filtration at the Duteau Creek treatment plant. Few officials wholeheartedly endorse the need for filtration, convinced the procedure has more to do with covering IHA’s liability than any real threat to public health.
“Filtration is dubious at best. We provide good water,” said director Bob Fleming.
And there is a fear IHA’s demands may grow.
“They may say that every drop of water, even for agriculture, has to be treated,” said director Mike Macnabb, refuting claims from some of his colleagues that filtrating water for farm crops is a waste of money.
Beyond having no guarantee that filtration is necessary, what’s frustrating for RDNO is the money could still be spent even if voters overwhelmingly say no to borrowing the funds for the master water plan.
“They may order us to do the work,” said Dale McTaggart, general manager of engineering, of how IHA may respond to a negative referendum result.
Some GVAC members, and particularly director Bob Spiers, are urging voters to turn down the $70 million in borrowing because they believe it will trigger a sudden flurry of grants from the provincial government, IHA’s parent body. However, while that situation has unfolded in other B.C. communities, tight times may lead Victoria to ignore Greater Vernon and residents will still be on the hook for the apparent upgrades.
Macnabb has initiated a campaign to have local government representatives added to the government appointees on the IHA board.
He has stated that local communities have no say in IHA’s operating budget or concerns coming from the public. But it’s highly likely that Macnabb’s effort is also being driven by the heavy-handed approach IHA takes when it comes to community water systems and imposing work that doesn’t take into account residents’ ability to pay.
Macnabb hopes his concept will be embraced by municipal councils and regional districts throughout the Southern Interior, and it should as what’s happening in Greater Vernon isn’t unique. IHA keeps dropping the hammer on the largest of cities, and the smallest of utilities like those in Spallumcheen.
“Our role is to represent the people and there’s a disconnect between IHA and the real world,” said Macnabb.
Victoria and IHA may resist any changes but it may be time for the public to have more of a voice in decisions that impact them.