An SFU professor says that taxpayer fatigue is a possible cause of highly unusual results from an alternative approval process that may force a referendum on the District of Squamish’s new public works facility.
"It doesn't happen too much, particularly for things like public works, because, you know, typically, most people like to have their toilets flush," said Andy Yan, director of the university's city program."
Having the electorate force a referendum on a critical piece of infrastructure is a rare occurrence.
Perhaps the last time anything similar occurred in Squamish was back in 2005, when residents overwhelmingly voted against a hefty loan in a referendum. At that time, the municipality was asking for permission to borrow $20 million for community amenities and recreation facilities.
In this case, it's unclear if the municipality will choose to proceed to a referendum for this matter, or whether it will make a second attempt at an alternative approval process.
Alternative approval processes, or AAPs, are initiated for big decisions, like hefty loans, and allow residents to vote against a proposal. If 10% of eligible voters cast ballots in an AAP, then the matter must go to referendum, where the public decides whether or not to accept the municipality's proposal. The municipality may forgo a referendum in favour of holding another alternative approval process, but best practices suggest that the proposal should then be modified to address concerns from the public.
However, this case is particularly peculiar because it involves the essentials of municipal operations, rather than recreation or amenities.
Yan said there were a number of questions around the outcome of the AAP, such as whether the District made its case clearly for the need of the structure.
"It could be one of those combinations of things of voter fatigue; of a sense of, you know, 'Is spending out of control? Is spending in the right places?'" said Yan.
There's also the possibility that perhaps the municipality took it for granted that a loan for the facility would be unopposed.
"A sense of entitlement is a problem too. It's to say that, 'Oh, it's a public workshop. So, of course, it's got to be passed.' Well, no, I think a lot of people want to see value for the money."
On March 1, District staff revealed that about 1,700 voters voiced their displeasure with the current proposal to borrow about $16 million to help fund the new public works building, which was originally anticipated to cost $20 million. The rest was to be funded from selling municipal assets.
The municipality has identified the aging building as being in critical need of being replaced.
The costs of the structure have also since increased to about $23.8 million, which would prompt the need for a pricier loan of up to $19 million.
Regardless of the increase, municipal bureaucrats say that if the municipality is unable to borrow money, it will spell an increase in taxes for residents.
A loan of about $18 million would mean an annual cost for residents of $9.50 per $100,000 of assessed property value. Commercial owners would pay $24 per $100,000 of assessed value, District staff say. This is essentially what the original proposal was asking for, but this option is in danger of being shot down, as a result of the alternative approval results.
There are two other options.
One is to fund the project entirely from property taxes, creating a pricier scenario of $68 per $100,000 of assessed value for residents and $175 per $100,000 for commercial properties.
During the March 1 meeting, District financial analyst Rolland Russell said that the average tax for a million-dollar home is about $2,200. Funding through property tax would add about $700 a year for two years, bumping it to nearly $3,000 for each of those years. He said that would be a roughly one-third increase.
The second option, funding the project through the sale of municipal property, staff said, is an unappetizing proposition that would take a lengthy period of time and leave the town with fewer assets.
Another possible reason for the votes against the loan could be the changing demographics of Squamish, Yan said.
He pointed out that as a result of population growth, a good chunk of Squamish's population did not live in town during the last census year of 2016.
"At least 20% of your community wasn't there five years ago," said Yan, so for newcomers a big loan just after settling in town can be a shock.
"It's like, 'What, do you want me to spend money on this now?'"
As for some of the suggestions regarding cost savings, Yan said that scrimping on a public facility isn't easy.
One suggestion from the public was to increase the number of remote workers, thus cutting the need for office space.
Yan said that it's possible in some cases, but there are projects and services where remote work just doesn't cut it.
"Even throughout the pandemic, a lot of the building services were still In operation," said Yan. "So, you know, yes, people were physically distancing, but they weren't Skyping in. And some office work is Skypable, but then a lot of this, some of these details and municipal works kind of operations are not."
Contracting out services from public works would not eliminate the need for a public works facility, as, at the very least, there still needs to be a place to store heavy machinery, he said.
"You don't necessarily want to outsource everything… because then it also [creates] some challenges in terms of standards to service," he said.
This kind of facility would not qualify as an amenity, and, as a result, wouldn't be able to be funded by community amenity contributions.
Squamish Forward, a local political group, has been posting online calls for improvements to the municipality's operation.
One of its latest posts was an online petition encouraging people to vote against the loan authorization in the alternative approval process.
"We can tell Squamish council that we do not agree to millions in new spending and a property tax increase," read the post.
Gord Addison, an organizer with Squamish Forward, said its online petition was not the main driver of the votes gathered in the alternative approval process.
Addison said the credit for the vote-gathering belonged to those who gathered signatures outside of grocery stores.
As for the goals that his group had with the online petition, he said that the aim was to generate conversation.
He said that standalone buildings are becoming a thing of the past, and said his group is working on a follow-up post regarding the results of the process.
Previously, the group made a post on its website floating the idea of creating combined buildings like the municipal hall and the school board office to offset construction costs for replacing the aging structures.
"We just want to generate some discussion," Addison said.
Coun. Eric Andersen also contributed a post to Squamish Forward's website months ago, told The Squamish Chief he is not in favour of the results of the alternative approval process.
He said he is not affiliated with the group.
"I was approached by a member of a third or fourth-generation member of a local family to participate in this dialogue initiative with an opinion piece. I learned there were diverse people involved who I respect as active citizens," he said.
"I was not informed or consulted on the later initiative of a petition against a loan authorization for the planned public works building, and certainly would not have endorsed it. The outcome was, in fact, a surprise to me. It is disruptive and costly for the District and its genuine needs."
He said the outcome was frustrating.
"I do not perceive any orchestration with mischievous intent behind it. But the real effect is another matter," he added.