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P3: Councillor Ross sees red flags

The push for a new water supply and treatment centre at Stave Lake is on.

But, while council is supporting the proposed public-private partnership (P3), one councillor has been outspoken in her objections.

Patricia Ross has concerns with how the city plans to move forward, and the level of urgency that is being placed on the issue.

“I agree that we need Stave Lake, but with conservation we can go a little beyond 2016,” said Ross.

A P3 system would allow a corporation to design, construct, partially finance and operate the water treatment plant for 25 years. The city would pay for the service, as long as a pre-determined amount of water and level of quality are maintained. The city would have free access to the plant to test the quality on an ongoing basis. If the water quality dips below the established level, the city can withhold payment.

But frequent testing still worries Ross.

“It’s not the same as being there day after day.”

And she wonders, if a problem does occur, could the city force a major corporation’s compliance?

“They could easily challenge us in court,” she said. “And who would control the water system while we argue?”

Operation of the plant was the main stumbling block that saw the District of Mission pull out of the project – an action that Ross said should have ended the P3 idea.

“We had a gentlemen’s agreement with Mission.”

Originally, the two communities, as part of the Abbotsford-Mission Water and Sewer Commission, were to share the costs of the new water source.

Abbotsford’s decision to move forward, without Mission as a partner, “really amounts to a hostile takeover,” according to Ross.

“The water is in their community ... we have to dig up their roads ... we are opening ourselves up to potential legal challenges.”

Other “red flags” include the millions of dollars available from the federal government for P3 projects.

Ross said there are other federal government grants that could supply funds to water projects, but the city has been told they are “all tapped out.” But Ross believes they could be rejuvenated in the coming years. She also wonders, if there is so much money available for P3s, why aren’t other municipalities accessing it?

“That’s a big red flag for me.”

With the vote just over a month away, Ross has expressed concerns with the wording of the referendum question – which asks taxpayers if they are willing to allow the city to borrow $230 million and enter into a 25-year P3 agreement, as long as $61 million in federal funding is made available. It’s a yes or no question.

“We are presenting it as, you vote P3 or you don’t have water.”

She thought there would be two questions on the referendum ballot, allowing people to vote for Stave Lake with P3, or Stave Lake with a public design/build.

“I don’t think we are presenting people with a choice ... it sounds more like intimidation ... People may be willing to pay a little more to have a system they are comfortable with.”

Ross said fiscal responsibility is important, but wonders if P3 will achieve that goal.

“I resent the implication that those in favour of P3 are the only ones being responsible with the public purse ... Our costs are greater because we’ve ostracized our partners in Mission. If they participate in the costs, it helps Abbotsford residents’ costs and we both win. I don’t feel they’ve adequately considered these additional complications and costs and if we do, if we regroup and work it out with Mission, ultimately that route will prove less costly.

“I respect my colleagues and I believe their motives are the same as mine. They are doing what they think is best for the city.

“I just don’t agree.”

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