Water poll indicates residents divided on P3 issue

Sixty-two per cent of Abbotsford residents agree with the plan to create a public-private partnership to build a new water supply and treatment centre at Stave Lake, but only 45-47 per cent indicated they are ready to vote for it. That's according to the findings of an Angus Reid public opinion poll performed for the City of Abbotsford.

Sixty-two per cent of polled Abbotsford residents agree with the concept of creating a public-private partnership to build a new water supply and treatment centre at Stave Lake, according to the findings of a $10,000 Angus Reid public opinion poll undertaken for the City of Abbotsford.

However, when the same respondents were asked again in two subsequent, reworded questions as to how they thought they would vote, support for a P3 project dropped to 45 and 47 per cent, respectively.

After an extensive explanatory preamble, the first question asked respondents if they agreed or disagreed with delivering a new water source as a public-private partnership.

Of the 62 per cent who agreed with the concept, 21 per cent strongly agreed while 41 per cent moderately agreed. Another 27 per cent did not agree, and 11 per cent weren’t sure.

A second related question asked those polled if they were willing to vote in favour or against entering a P3 partnership and borrowing up to $300 million over 25 years for a new Stave Lake water supply.

Only nine per cent said they were definitely in favour; 36 per cent answered probably in favour; while 13 per cent were probably against, and 18 per cent were definitely against. Twenty-four per cent were not sure.

A third question, this time mentioning increases to water rates and watering restrictions, generated a similar combined response.

Asked how they would vote in terms of a public-private partnership, the combined total of definitely and probably in favour was 47 per cent, with 34 per cent either definitely or probably against.

“What we are trying to do is see what message resonates with people,” explained Mario Canseco.

The vice-president of Angus Reid Public Opinion said responses in favour and against were slightly higher, when the second question regarding voting was asked.

Of those polled, 54 per cent of people age 55 and over were in favour, compared to 29 per cent against, while 47 per cent of people age 18-34 were in favour with 32 per cent against.

The 35-54 age group were the closest result with 41 per cent in favour compared to 40 per cent against.

City manager Frank Pizzuto said some of the questions were “redundant,” but helped the city to establish where to target its marketing efforts.

He explained that the two vote-specific questions focused on different issues.

“One was about the money, the other was about the consequences if we don’t do this.

“It is our interpretation that people are less concerned about money and more concerned about  the availability of water,” said Pizzuto.

While the poll shows a slight lean towards P3, there is also significant indifference.

It found that 58 per cent of respondents were not closely following the issue.

“That’s the most surprising result,” said Abbotsford Mayor George Peary.

“We wanted to gather some baseline data on the P3 issue … now we know what to work on.”

On Monday, the city launched a new information awareness campaign on the Stave Lake water project.

“We need to (a) make sure they know what’s at stake here and (b) answer their questions.”

The city created a new website, www.stavelakeproject.ca, and will host five public meetings and two telephone townhall sessions. Dates have yet to be announced.

The P3 proposal would see the city enter into a 25-year contract with a private business to build, partially finance and operate a new water treatment facility. The city is hoping to secure $61 million in federal funding from PPP Canada, and would then borrow $230 million to pay for the remainder.

A referendum will be held on Nov. 19 to seek taxpayers’ permission for both the loan and the P3 contract.

Critics of the P3 proposal are concerned about allowing a private company to have any level of control in a natural resource. However, the city maintains the facility, the water and water rates will always remain in the public domain, with the private partner only fulfilling a contract to treat the water.

While poll respondents were  divided over the P3 plan, there was significant uncertainty about the outcome of such a project.

When asked, 75 per cent replied they were concerned the project will not be delivered on budget, and 62 per cent felt the process will be too secretive.

According to the poll, the biggest public concern (76 per cent) regarding Abbotsford’s current water situation is that rates will rise dramatically. Other concerns posed by the pollsters included increased watering restrictions (49 per cent were concerned) and that the city will run out of water (45 per cent concerned).

The city has said water rates will rise by 10 per cent (between $35 and $45 per average home) each year for five years, and respondents were asked if that was justified. Forty-five per cent answered it was, and 49 per cent said it was not. Six per cent were unsure.

The poll also found that 68 per cent of respondents felt that “things in Abbotsford are going in the right direction” while 19 per cent said the city is on the wrong track, while 13 per cent were unsure.

“That shows that people have a little bit of trust in this council, which is not common in many municipalities,” said Canseco.

One question that Canseco said caused many concerns with respondents regarded how they voted in the most recent provincial and federal elections.

“I received a lot of calls about that.”

He explained those questions are often asked during surveys regarding an election or political issue. It is used, like age and gender questions, to ensure the sample – in this case 300 homes – is balanced and accurately represented.

The telephone survey took place from Aug. 8-14, among randomly selected registered voters. The margin of error is plus or minus five per cent.

For a complete look at the Angus Reid poll visit:

Link to report http://www.abbotsford.ca/Assets/Abbotsford/Stave+Lake+Water+Project/Reports/Consultant+Reports/Angus+Reid+Public+Opinion+Report.pdf