“I do feel like I’m on the last lap of a 25 [kilometre] race.”–Sean Bujtas
Progress may be painfully slow, and there’s nothing even in writing yet, but Terrace’s mayor says he hasn’t given up hope Premier David Eby will cut a revenue-sharing deal with the province’s cash-strapped northwest municipalities.
Sean Bujtas said the 21 communities in the Northwest BC Resource Alliance, which he co-chairs, emerged from a meeting last week with Eby and Municipal Affairs Minister Anne Kang at the Union of BC Municipalities annual conference with hope they could still get stable annual funding for infrastructure like roads and sewers.
“I do feel the Premier fully understands the needs of the northwest, and he’s alluded to that in multiple conversations,” Bujtas said in an interview.
“As much as, yes, I was hoping to have a deal done by September 2023, that was our initial plan… I still feel that this thing is on track and moving forward. I do feel like I’m on the last lap of a 25 (kilometre) race.”
Projects booming, but NW communities lack funds for basic services
The northwest alliance wants a share of the revenue the province collects from the multi-billion dollar natural resource sector that thrives around their communities. The membership stretches from Masset to Vanderhoof, and includes the regional governments of North Coast, Bulkley-Nechako and Kitimat-Stikine.
More than 74 per cent of all provincial projects related to mining, oil, gas, wood and petrochemical manufacturing are located in northwest — valued at more than $13 billion — yet because they tend to operate outside municipal boundaries the revenue flows to the province and not to local governments.
Without financial assistance, the small communities say they lack the financial resources and tax base to keep up with basic municipal services.
“All the pressures of resources around us, communities are growing, there’s a need for more housing, and we can’t even afford to put the infrastructure in,” said Bujtas.
The northwest wants a deal like the Peace River agreement, signed by the previous BC Liberal government in 2015, which provides more than $1 billion over 20 years in recognition that the local towns and cities house the workers for nearby oil, gas, mining and forestry projects, but often don’t see direct revenue from those operations.
The goal for a similar deal in the northwest had been by September 2023. That timeline has come and gone.
Communities must rely on senior government for infrastructure needs
To give the appearance of progress, the Eby government last week released an executive summary of common ground between the province and the alliance.
The summary concluded that the long-term financial challenges of the region will only get worse, with a small property tax base (only four communities have populations of more than 5,000) unable to fund demand, leaving communities to rely on senior levels of government to meet their future infrastructure needs.
“We believe that people should benefit from the prosperity generated by their hard work and the resources of the regions where they live,” Eby said in a statement after the UBCM meeting.
“We are committed to partnering with northwestern communities to help stabilize their infrastructure and growth over the long term.”
Municipal Affairs Minister Anne Kang, who is supposed to be leading the negotiations, declined an interview request.
Previous provincial funding spent on landfill remediation
Eby has pointed to a $1 billion he gave municipalities last year to spend on whatever priority items needed to be addressed in their communities. Many in the northwest dumped the money into water pipes, sewer lines and road maintenance.
“All Terrace is doing is putting it into critical infrastructure,” said Bujtas. “I don’t think that was the plan. I think the province hoped we could buy something nice and shiny we’d be proud of.”
Finance Minister Katrine Conroy said she’s heard similar complaints, that while many rural communities would have liked to fund new lasting amenities like parks and recreation centres, they ended up using the money for underground infrastructure as they struggle to keep up with the services required to meet rising housing development.
“It’s always fun to be able to go and cut ribbons for arenas and things like that, but you need your infrastructure to build housing and to increase your housing,” said Conroy. “You need that sewer and water line, and things like that. So, many communities have spent that money on that.”
Shooting for an agreement by Budget 2024
Bujtas said the goal now is to finalize a deal this fall, so that Conroy can include the new formula in her February 24 provincial budget. Complicating matters, however, is the fact the province and alliance have yet to agree on an actual amount.
“We have not yet come to the right number,” said Bujtas.
He, and other northwest mayors, are planning a trip to Victoria this fall to increase the pressure on Eby and remind him of his promises.
“If you can get a deal done you get your foot in the door,” said Bujtas.
“Right now we’re sharing nothing. So even if we don’t get quite the deal we want, at least we’re sharing something.”