Options: Metro, create a new district or make up with FVRD

Minister of Community Ida Chong has said Abbotsford cannot become its own regional district.

The B.C. minister of community has told Mayor Bruce Banman that Abbotsford can’t become its own regional district.

Ida Chong, Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, said she would entertain a re-drawing of boundaries that could include neighbouring municipalities such as Mission and rural areas.

“I would be interested in seeing what that would look like, and the level of support for it,” Chong told The News.

Banman met with Chong on Feb. 21 to outline Abbotsford’s case for leaving the Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD).

Under former mayor George Peary, council decided in 2011 to leave the FVRD and form its own district, as a cost-saving measure.

Chong said the regional district system in B.C. sees virtually all municipalities as part of regional districts, so districts with common interests can collaborate on regional growth and services, such as parks, planning and public transportation.

Therefore, she said Abbotsford’s only option would be to ask the province to re-draw regional district boundaries. She said it is important that small, unincorporated areas not be “orphaned” in the process, because they need the borrowing authority, bylaws and other important functions of a regional district.

There are seven such areas in the FVRD, representing areas such as Deroche and Dewdney.

“Abbotsford cannot go it alone,” said Banman, adding Chong’s decision has left the city with three options.

It could join the Metro Regional District, but Banman expects that would be unattractive to residents, due to the heavy gas taxes that would be incurred to support public transit.

“I don’t think anyone wants to pay more in gas taxes and get little for it in return,” said Banman.

Chong also did not see Abbotsford as a natural fit with Metro.

“It has more in common with the Valley than it does downtown Vancouver,” she said.

Second, the city could form a new regional district, perhaps involving Mission, unincorporated areas of the FVRD that wanted to join, and perhaps neighbouring municipalities that feel “marginalized” by the large Metro district.

Banman will speak with neighbouring mayors to see if there is any appetite to join the city in such a venture. He notes that this approach would mean “a ton of work” by city staff, and potentially the need for an entirely new regional district office. The new costs might mitigate any savings incurred by leaving the FVRD.

While he didn’t want to speculate on the price tag to form an entirely new regional district, Abbotsford’s first-year mayor opined, “It can’t be cheap.”

The third option is “Kiss and make up with the FVRD,” said Banman.

As a candidate, he campaigned against leaving the FVRD, but was out-voted at the council table in a December debate on the issue.

Banman said this issue boils down to power and money.

“Abbotsford pays approximately 49 per cent of the cost (of the FVRD), and has 25 per cent of the say,” he said.

That “say” is a weighted 25 votes at the FVRD council table, out of a total 59 votes.

He noted that with the new census Abbotsford should receive more votes at the FVRD table. Also, the FVRD has reduced Abbotsford’s financial contribution by more than $600,000. So the city is getting more power while paying less, said Banman.

He has asked the FVRD for a list of what the city pays for and how it benefits from membership in the district – including the less tangible benefits.

He’ll take that list back to the council table.

Banman predicted council will ultimately reverse course and choose to stay in the FVRD.