By Robert Freeman
A re-organization plan at the Fraser Valley Regional District that includes a “more equitable” funding formula was discussed during an in-camera board meeting last Tuesday night.
But it’s not clear if the final plan expected next month will contain enough to keep the City of Abbotsford from leaving the FVRD to set up its own regional government.
“We’ve embarked upon a journey, but we don’t have a final destination in mind,” Abbotsford Mayor George Peary said Wednesday after the in-camera meeting.
The city may yet decide to remain within the FVRD, he said.
Mission Mayor James Atebe and Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz said a “more equitable” funding formula was being worked out by FVRD staff long before the issue became public when the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce put out a news release claiming the city was not getting good value for taxpayers’ dollars at the regional district.
The regional district was restructured 15 years ago and there’s never been a review into how it was working. Abbotsford’s concerns initiated the recent review, and our community was in favour of it because we wanted to see if we were getting value for our money, said Atebe.
The review was done in closed meetings because in order to do a comprehensive assessment everything had to be looked at, including staffing resources, he added. “I was very surprised to come back from holidays to see this being discussed in an open meeting.”
Atebe believes Abbotsford’s threat to withdraw from the regional district was premature as a strong case hasn’t been made.
“They knew the review was coming and they made the request before the review came out,” said Atebe.
“If Abbotsford is being treated unfairly … there’s ways that will come up to deal with that,” she said. “We’ll deal with it and figure out how we can make [the formula] more applicable for Abbotsford.”
“If they don’t stay, we will recover,” she added. “But we may not be able to do things the same way.”
She said some “downsizing” at the FVRD may occur, but staff have now been advised and are “working hard to get ready in case it does happen.”
The Chilliwack-based FVRD, which delivers services from Abbotsford to Boston Bar, had a $6-million payroll in 2009. Abbotsford paid $2.5 million into FVRD tax requisitions in 2010, while Chilliwack paid $1.8 million and Hope paid $1.2 million. Mission was the fourth-largest contributor at $818,000.
The Abbotsford chamber is arguing the city is paying the lion’s share of service costs delivered to “free riders” in rural areas of the region.
But Gaetz said that over the past year the regional district “has been looking at operations to make sure [the funding formula] is equitable to everyone,” a sentiment reinforced by area G director Al Stobbart.
She said the FVRD review may include benefits the Abbotsford Chamber did not consider, like the regional role played in the protection of air quality, transportation improvements and treaty talks.
“That’s the whole idea of the regional district, to do things together that you couldn’t do separately,” she said. “I think Abbotsford has really benefitted — and we have benefitted from having Abbotsford at the [FVRD] board.”
Also the regional district was instrumental in helping Abbotsford build a regional hospital and cancer clinic, said Atebe.
FVRD board vice-chair Chuck Stam said he believes most board members will be pleased with the final plan, which will include cost-saving measures like cutting the number of committees to avoid duplication of services.
He said the review recognizes regional governments “must change or become irrelevant” and the FVRD must deal with the same recessionary pressures faced by businesses.
“The government is just a little slower,” he said. “They cannot just grow eternally and never have to make cuts.”
From Peary’s view, that only makes sense as it was Chilliwack that asked Abbotsford to join the new regional district to ease the costs it was paying as the largest municipality in the old Fraser Cheam Regional District.
“It was politically an astute move on the part of [then-mayor] John Les,” he said.
Peary said he was one of the architects of the FVRD formed 16 years ago by the merger of several regional districts in the Fraser Valley.
He said Abbotsford once formed the nucleus of the Central Fraser Valley Regional District after Langley and Langley Township left to join the Greater Vancouver Regional District.
— With files from Carol Aun