Sunday, April 17, 2011

Referendum approves borrowing - barely

Well, it seems that , with very poor turnout at the referendum polls, the majority of the residents who voted approved the borrowing of up to $ 16 million to build a new firehall.

As I said in earlier blogs and comments, I do not believe the replacement firehall will actually cost $ 16 million, and I hope it will end up being $ 12 million or less for the entire project. As noted previously, we do not yet have final design of the firehall or the geo-technical data needed regarding the site for pile driving, etc. that will be required. We have a draft design and preliminary geo-tech, but without the funding referendum, we did not wish to move this project forward, and spend large amounts from our current operating/capital budgets, until we knew if this project had the ability to move forward.

We now have that ability as approved by the voters, and we can get on with finalizing the design and moving this long overdue project forward !


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The need for, and cost of, a new firehall

On April 16, Port Moody voters are being asked to participate in a referendum to endorse the borrowing of up to $ 16 million for the funding of the replacement of Firehall #1, at Ioco and Murray Streets.

That's a lot of money ! So, what's this all about ???

Why do we need a new firehall ?
The current firehall was built in 1974, so it is only 37 years old. Well - only... maybe that sounds old, but my house is close to 100 years old, and there is no reason to replace it at this point. This will be the THIRD firehall (and third police station) Port Moody has had in my 44 years, and that doesn't include Glenayre. That doesn't seem right !
The problem is, I believe, the firehall was built poorly, by today's standards, and is not built to current earthquake/disaster standards. The sinking/shifting of the firehall is readily obvious if you go look at the site, you can see the stabilizing measures installed a few years ago are already 30+ cm from where they started. Also , the city has grown substantially since 1974, in fact, it has grown over 100%. While we have added firehall #2 in Glenayre, we also have the need to store more equipment/apparatus and the existing #1 hall is just becoming too small. The Fire Rescue service has evolved over those 37 years, with new extraction equipment, wildland interface equipment and now, the equipment needed to address the changing landscape of our community, particularly high rises.

Why is it so expensive ?
Why is anything so expensive these days ? Worst part of trying to do this sort of thing, as a city, is that our process is completely transparent. Every potential bidder on this job knows how much money we have to spend because our budgets are transparent and open. It's very frustrating, knowing there will be limited or no negotiations. I'm not used to this from my private business life - but, that is the way it goes. So, we have to have the building designed to meet our needs and come up with an estimate for borrowing purposes so we can go to referendum (see below for the why on that issue). Because there are still many variables, the $ 16 million budget contains many 'contingencies' for those unknowns. We believe the actual building construction cost to be 8-10 Million. Still a lot of money, but, substantially less than 16. Other contributors will be the design, environmental issues, site prep issues, pile driving, furnishings and finishing. The new firehall is designed to be an asset for the city for the next 50 years. It includes new training space, equipment space, administrative space, co-ed locker facilities, etc - many of these would NOT have been included 37 years ago. We want to ensure our fire rescue personnel are protected at their place of work, ready to react to serve our residents.

Why doesn't the city consider the earlier option of co-locating development with the firehall, or selling this site for development and building the firehall elsewhere ?
There are a few reasons for this, in particular, one that nobody seems to be talking about - or at least those in FAVOUR of more high density development in this area.

First, Port Moody residents, from the election in 2008 (when EVERY candidate for council was asked if they supported further high rise development and ALL said they did not), to the various public meetings on the OCP and the firehall issue itself, have made it clear that the current density in this area, even though Onni is not yet built out on the Suter Brook site, is stressing our city with commuter transport issues in particular, and they do not wish to see any more development here. I have always said that while I agree with that, the Firehall site was one that I would have considered on its own merit, as this has been 'on the books' for many, many years.

When we looked at options for co-locating development on a site with a firehall, we found that there were very few, if any, developments that we could do in that scenario, particularly due to the access issues at this location. Firehalls house big trucks and need to be able to get in and out very quickly, and this site doesn't lend itself to sharing that space with residential or commercial tenancy.

The last option then was to relocate the firehall elsewhere and simply SELL this site to raise money towards the construction of the new firehall. This seems to be where most of the misconceptions are now coming into play. First, and most importantly, all of the data we have around call volumes suggest that the hall should be located within about 400m of its current location. A very large percentage of our calls come from the Inlet Centre area. Relocating the firehall to Heritage Mountain/Bert Flinn , as was considered in 2005, would mean that 80% of our calls would have an increased response time, and only < 5% of our calls would have a decreased response time. Relocating the hall to St Johns Street, to co-locate with the Police Services building, unfortunately would put the April Road/Ioco Road residents OUTSIDE of the acceptable call response time service level. Getting through St Johns/Ioco intersection during rush hour, particularly the afternoon rush, when the highest number of calls for fire/rescue are received, is very difficult. Also this means both halls would be on the same side of the tracks and overpasses and leave the north shore isolated should and emergency take out the crossings of the tracks. Could we relocate the firehall to Eagle Ridge Hospital grounds ? That would have been my choice, if we HAD to move, and had that been an available option. But we don't HAVE to, we don't have that option, and that isn't city owned land, so we would have to buy it.

The BIGGEST misconception though, is the value of the land the current firehall sits on. In doing the analysis with the architects and the city, it became evident that fitting even a modest firehall on the site would be a challenge due to the environmental regulations on streamside setbacks. The site has TWO creeks running through it, which limits the scale of development on the site. The current draft plan of the firehall, at just over 1000 sq m. doesn't even fit entirely in that envelope, despite going outside of the setbacks to Knowle St and Murray St. The site is over 6500 sq m and we can only build on roughly 1000 sq m. My single family lot is Moody Centre is about 800 sq m. How much development can we get on a lot just slightly larger than a single family lot ? 4 units ? 10 ?? That development would be even more challenged than the firehall due to building code, and parking restrictions, and certainly would not have the economic position to contribute in any meaningful way to the firehall construction elsewhere. So, to suggest that we could get any high density development on this site which would pay for a firehall, is really a pipe dream. Unless we are willing to fore go the environmental regulations and violate our own city policy. I'm not willing to do that.

What happens if the referendum is defeated ?
Well, the decision to replace the firehall, as far as I know, is made. This council has made this the number one capital priority, and the ONLY one. The site selection, I believe, has been made, through several years of consultation and consideration of the options. The need for the firehall is clearly identified. I don't believe the referendum will fail, but, if it does, then we will need to have a very serious conversation with our residents about what we are to do .

Why do we need a referendum ? Why can't council just make the decision and get on with it ?
Due to the financial state of the city, we are not in a 'legal' position to incur this kind of debt without going to the voters for approval. The Local Govt act/Community Charter, provincial legislation, limits the amount of debt a city is allowed to incur - much as we are not allowed to carry deficit budgets, as prov. and fed. governments do, we also are not allowed to commit to debt we cannot repay. Council COULD just increase taxes raising reserves for a few years and then back paying other reserves to complete the project, but, honest, open government doesn't work this way.

Why doesn't the city have the money to replace the firehall and police station ? Where has all the money from all of the increased growth gone ?
Great question ! Previous councils have approved development and sold city land to developers and in exchange for that, the city, 8 years ago, had very healthy reserves and no debt. Today , we find our reserves depleted and our debt piling up. Decisions were made, prior to my arrival on council in 2005 to build a new police building (9 million), and recreation centre (26 million), which consumed all of the development revenues and reserves, as well as incurring debt (borrowing). Those councils made strategic decisions on priorities for spending - and for whatever reason, despite the fact that the firehall replacement was known to be an issue , it was overlooked. Since I came onto council in 2005, there have been no major capital projects approved by the city council, and in 2008 the current council adopted the policy of only having ONE capital project on the plan, the firehall, which was my campaign commitment in 2008.

So, obviously, i believe we need a new firehall. I have said this since I ran for council in 2005. Everyone has agreed that we need a new firehall. It is unfortunate that we have not adequately planned for this financially, but, there are always varied opinons as to whether you should pay forward, pay back or pay now. Personally I prefer the city to have healthy reserves and to plan for the future, which is why I pushed for the implementation of the asset renewal reserve a few years ago, and why i work every year for responsible budgets that protect our taxpayers assets.

I wish it was cheaper, and I wish we had the reserves to pay for it, but we don't. Moving forward, I hope that residents approve this funding and keep pressure on city council to be spending every dollar wisely. Our taxes are increasing at a rate outpacing inflation and growth and forcing people to leave our community - we need to control spending and recognize what we can and cannot afford as a community. But public safety, and utilities, need to be protected as the number 1 mandate of city government, and we must not let our infrastructure fall apart. This should not and can not take a back seat to libraries, rec centres, or anything else, or we will be in a heap of trouble down the road.

If you have any questions before you vote PLEASE ask.. you can get me by email or by phone any time.