Water pressure: Mission joins lobby to unlink federal funding for P3 deals

As the City of Abbotsford awaits word on its application for federal P3 funding for a major water supply project, other Lower Mainland communities are resisting the public/private deals.

Water gushes in Norrish Creek

Water gushes in Norrish Creek

As the City of Abbotsford awaits word on its application for federal P3 funding for a major water supply project, other Lower Mainland communities are resisting the public/private deals.

On Tuesday night, Mission council was asked by a delegation from Water Watch Mission Abbotsford (WWMA) to support Burnaby, which will bring a motion to the Union of B.C. Municipalities pushing for federal funding of public water projects without P3 involvement.

Mission plans to lobby Ottawa directly in writing, and through Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge-Mission MP Randy Kamp, for alternatives to P3 funding.

WWMA spokesperson Diane Kalen Sukra lauded Mission council at  Tuesday’s meeting.

“We watched many council members, not just here in Mission but also in Abbotsford, agonize and express dismay at the predicament our municipalities have been put in to access federal funds for vital infrastructure projects.”

The group will be asking Abbotsford council to join the lobby for alternatives to P3 funding for water projects at Monday’s council meeting.

Public/private partnerships, known as P3s, have gained provincial and federal government favour over the past decade.

Proponents cite various benefits from having private enterprise invest in civic projects, including greater efficiencies in construction and operation, and less capital borrowing for civic government.

Opponents counter those claims, and express concern over private involvement in critical public services such as water supply.

Mission Mayor James Atebe wants a choice. He said public municipal water infrastructure has historically been eligible to receive grants of one-third funding from each of the federal and provincial governments, but that is not presently the case.

“At this time, the only option they have is P3,” he said. “I hope we will continue – and we’re lobbying through our MP – to have options for municipalities other than P3.”

He said Mission council did not take a philosophical stand against P3s, but took its lead from public opposition to private involvement.

“We listened to our community. When we held public input, the public was very clear,” he said. “There was an overwhelming crowd at city hall that made a case about why they didn’t want P3.”

Abbotsford Coun. John Smith said the city has to pursue the P3 route, because it can’t afford to wait for future funding, hoping it becomes available soon.

He called P3 funding “the lowest hanging fruit. And there isn’t a lot of other fruit.”

Smith noted it will take about three years to get the Stave Lake water on stream once the work begins. A wait of six or seven years could see the city on water rationing, he predicted.

MP Kamp said there is no Conservative government plan to promote P3 projects at the exclusion of others. He said the funding is available through P3 Canada because municipalities have not applied for it yet – unlike other infrastructure funds which have been drained.

“We’re not trying to move in a particular direction,” said Kamp, adding that P3 Canada “is not there to encourage municipalities to go the P3 way for water funding.”

He agreed that water distribution would require a complex P3 agreement, with a high degree of public oversight and control.

“I understand that certain pro-jects lend themselves better to P3 funding,” he said, but added a water project can be developed with “enough safeguards in place.” Kamp said more public funds for infrastructure will become available in the future, but the government has been running deficit budgets due to the downturn in the global economy, and it fast-tracked infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy. He is not aware of a timeline for new funding.

He also expressed concern about the fractured relationship between former water system partners Abbotsford and Mission, and how they will work together in the future now that Abbotsford is taking the P3 path, and Mission opposes it.

“It’s not clear to me how that’s going to work.”

The city is proposing to create a new $284-million water source and treatment centre at Stave Lake. The city has applied for federal funding from PPP Canada to create a public-private partnership to build and operate the new facility

If approval for federal funding is received, it could provide up to 25 per cent of the cost, or in the range of $70 million.

A referendum will be required to get the assent of the electorate.

It will likely be a two-part question – one regarding the borrowing of funds to pay the capital costs, and the other asking for approval of the financial terms of the P3 agreement.

A decision from PPP Canada is anticipated soon.

A BLUE COMMUNITY

Fighting the commodification of water is the goal of the Blue Community motion put forward by his city, says Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan.

The motion will be debated at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Vancouver on Sept. 26-30, and could represent the position of B.C.’s cities and towns.

“Most people are oblivious that there is a major effort to gain control of water, much as they (corporations) gained control of oil resources,” Corrigan told The News.

Abbotsford’s only choice for infrastructure funding for its water system is through a public-private partnership, approved by the government agency P3 Canada.

However, Corrigan is adamant that public control over civic services such as water must take priority.

“Intuitively, people are reluctant to give up requirements for human life to the private sector,” he said.

BURNABY’S BLUE COMMUNITY MOTION

WHEREAS public health depends on equitable access to clean water supplies;

AND WHEREAS the public ownership and operation of drinking water and wastewater treatment systems has improved access and quality, and public operation has been shown to be cost-effective, efficient, transparent, accountable and responsive to changing technology, priorities, and community needs:

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that UBCM call upon the federal government, through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and/or other avenues, to fulfil its responsibility to invest in the renewal and replacement of aging local government infrastructure, including that related to drinking water and wastewater, in a manner that ensures continued public ownership.