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UPDATED: P3 water project rejected

Shelley Clarkson addressed council Monday night. - Carol Aun photo
Shelley Clarkson addressed council Monday night.
— image credit: Carol Aun photo

The Abbotsford-Mission Water and Sewer Commission (AMWSC) will not be proceeding with a private-public partnership option to develop a new water supply source for the two communities.

In a close four-part vote, Mission council rejected a plan to apply for a grant from Public Private Partnerships Canada which could have provided up to 25 per cent of the cost for the $300-million Stave Lake water source project.

Presentations were made to both councils Monday night at their respective meetings by AMWSC on the project and Deloitte and Touche on the business case for P3, and each were expected to vote on the recommendations. Abbotsford council deferred its decision for two weeks, but their vote is now irrelevant because both communities must agree on the plan for it to proceed.

Stave Lake’s water is needed to meet the growth demands of Mission and Abbotsford. It would become the cities’ fourth water source in 2015. The two communities are currently serviced with water from Norrish Creek, Cannel Lake and 19 wells in Abbotsford.

Close to 100 concerned residents filled council chambers and the lobby of municipal hall as elected officials in Mission listened to speakers for more than four hours.

“Everyone is gravely concerned about this; we don’t want private corporations to have anything to do with our water,” said Mission resident and Canadian Union of Public Employees spokesperson Diane Kalen-Sukra.

Once private corporations get their foot in the door, they will keep lobbying until they take over the operation. There will be a loss of transparency and accountability when that happens, she predicted.

While Mark Hodgson, who presented the P3 business case, outlined some of the project risks transferred to the private sector, Kalen-Sukra noted “nothing is more riskier than playing with our water.”

Council’s intentions are good because they want to provide residents with clean, safe water, but corporations simply want to make money, she added. “Water is worth more than gold, more than oil. If they control the water, they’ll control our lives.”

Although Mayor James Atebe and other staff members explained numerous times the ownership of the water will remain public in a P3 situation, Kalen-Sukra’s concern was shared by many audience members.

“Water is the new oil,” said Kevin Francis, who gave examples of how some European nations failed to keep the water system public. “There hasn’t been one example in the world where rates have gone down due to privatization of the water system and there is now a dozen trading companies on the market dealing exclusively in water.”

A few speakers told cautionary tales, including Maple Ridge councillor and federal NDP candidate Craig Speirs.

Twelve years ago, Maple Ridge signed a P3 agreement, but tried to buy it back after a legal challenge, said Speirs. “You’re not buying back what you paid, you’re buying a business. Quality of water is a basic human right.”

Former Mission councillor Ron Taylor questioned how council could make a decision in the absence of a full report from Deloitte and Touche. There is an executive summary, but where is the full report, he asked.

Others encouraged council to seek out an independent report and build a case for a design-build-operate model.

Shelley Clarkson agreed the quick timeline and lack of communication is causing fear.

“I don’t have a problem with the design and build with P3, but have a huge issue with the operation. You don’t know what will be handed back in 25 years,” she said.

The water system should be publicly financed and maintained, said Donna Lee Lakes, a District of Mission employee. She encouraged councillors to speak with CUPE employees currently managing the water treatment plant.

“These employees are committed because they live, work and play in the community. What happens when a private company with no ties come in?” she asked.

A couple of speakers, including Rod Payne, told council they would rather pay higher taxes to the district to keep the system public.

Only Mission Chamber of Commerce manager Michelle Favero spoke in favour of the P3 arrangement on behalf of members.

Population growth in the Fraser Valley is expected to double in the near future and over the course of 25 years, taxpayers will be protected from the increases in labour and maintenance costs, she said.

Favero also pointed out the district is already involved in partnerships with private companies, such as those working at the landfill and refuse collection.

The large audience sat patiently through the public input portion of the meeting, but some members of the public became restless when it was council’s turn to speak their minds, and the proceedings had to be halted a couple of times to address rude remarks and gestures.

Councillors unanimously approved two of the four recommendations that night which called for Mission and Abbotsford mayors to pursue provincial grant funding and receive a report and business case analysis for the Stave Lake project.

Council agreed to submit a grant request to PPP Canada in a close 4-3 vote, with Couns. Jenny Stevens, Heather Stewart, and Mike Scudder opposed, but the proposal for a P3 project, which included a referendum on the issue in November, was refused with a 3-4 vote. Coun. Danny Plecas, in addition the other three previously named councillors, objected to the referendum.

PPP Canada won’t support the grant application unless the issue goes out to the electorate, said Jim Gordon, AMWSC general manager.

The councillors in favour of moving the application forward said a referendum would have given voters a voice.

Cheers erupted after the decision.

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