BC Wildfire Tanker Cost FOI – The Devil is in the -redacted- Details

Note: The FOI documents had to be run though an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) program so that they would be searchable and copy/paste-able.  This causes some character (letter/symbol) errors with the original text that may show up in the quotes even though I have tried to catch them all.

The Big Three Air Tanker Companies

There are only three companies providing in-province fixed wing air tanker service to the Government of British Columbia.  Airspray, ConAir and Coulson.

Earlier this year I submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out the real costs of the Air Tanker program (excluding helicopters).  It took a few months but the request has been completed.  You can see the original request here and the full 297 page response here.

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Old ideas die hard in the dark – the Plywood Site

Updated with my initial statement added first. And some grammar and other errors cleaned up.

Here are my thoughts on this issue… It’s not the direction I would have preferred simply because of past experience. Other communities have gone in different directions and have being growing while we stagnate. I can’t help but believe this direction will not help with our growth and evolution as a community and I hope it does not stunt the already raging successes that have come from the very modest investments at canal beach.

Addition:  For clarity and completeness I should add that the majority of Council voted to move ahead with this sale in order to give another chance for a maritime business to take hold or expand on that property as was the original intent of the covenant that restricted the property’s use to Industrial. My misgivings about process, direction and vision that I outline in detail below notwithstanding, I do see the merit of trying to attract more maritime business to the area.

Continue reading “Old ideas die hard in the dark – the Plywood Site”

After Public Input – Now come the hard decisions – Alternate title: Do you really want an 11% increase?

So over the weekend and today I’ve been going through the latest input from you, the public, about what you like and don’t like about the City, and what you feel needs to be done or not done.

If I thought before that that input would make my decision easier now I know for sure, it won’t. 🙂

You can see the results in Tuesday’s agenda here or click the image which shows some of the feedback from the public input session. Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 1.22.13 PM

And here is what the public budget survey looks like:

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And finally I have an excel spreadsheet that is also in the agenda.  Unfortunately only 25 people came to the public input session but 348 people did respond to the survey.  Overall it certainly isn’t a representative survey, but it does give us some ideas.

As I went through the public input I jotted down what seemed to be the projects that got the most, or least support.  These are my notes… broken down in “Yes”… “Yes But” and “No”.  With a couple thoughts from the survey.

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If I match that to the Excel Spreadsheet, here is the result:

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Notice the top line number.  Ouch.

If I take away the pool and Canal Beach….

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Still a hefty hike.  But one thing is clear… if we match up the budget to the input we got, we will have a significant increase on our hands.

Without question, the items that had the strongest support were upgrades to the Beach and to start on the Pool.  Also public bottled water stations and the repairs to the pilings at Harbour Quay.  What didn’t get much support?  Reduction in Transit… increasing Bylaw services… or Fibre Optic installation.

What to do?  Well… one thing that really stood out for me in the online survey was the very strong support for Parks and Rec as well as increasing economic development.

I guess we will just have to figure it out, that’s why Council is here but Council definitely has a lot of food for thought and a lot of tough decisions to make.

 

Breaking down the costs of commuting – now with two jobs!

Update: I’ve added the savings if someone was driving a car/truck that got more average mileage. (9L/100km or 26 US mpg)

As many of you likely already know, I commute to work at VIU five days a week. Yup, this means driving back and forth everyday in some fashion.

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Click to see the bus schedule

Since about 2008 (I can’t even remember anymore haha) I have been taking advantage of the Regional District of Nanaimo BC Transit bus from Qualicum or Parksville to Woodgrove and then on to VIU. It adds between 30 and 60 minutes to the trip a day. On a ‘normal’ day I leave Port Alberni around 6AM, drive to Parksville Civic Centre, hop on the bus at 6:45, transfer at Woodgrove and end up at VIU around 7:30AM. On the way back it is a longer journey because of a long layover at Woodgrove and a ‘milk run’ to Parksville so I generally leave VIU at 3:35PM and arrive home at 5:30PM.  If you’re wondering if I’m the only person on the bus, nope not at all.  There are other VIU commuters (employees and students), High School students going to Nanaimo, other workers, many seniors going for day trips either to Nanaimo or often to Vancouver and beyond and other regular bus users, like kids going to the Mall or people who likely don’t have a lot of money, especially First Nations.  The use of the commuter bus between Parksville and Woodgrove has grown noticeably, especially as gas prices have risen.

IMG_1914The cost of an RDN bus pass is $700 a year through the VIU “Pro Pass” program, which is pretty cool.  My pass is #0040.  I’m an early adopter… and as you can see from how grungy it is I use it a lot. The previous Federal Government also instituted a Tax Credit for all bus passes.  So I get 15% of that cost back ($105) so I am currently paying about $590 for the bus pass.

So why take the bus?

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Remember, I’m a geek. So I track my distance travelled with an App on my iPad called “Waze”.

I get this question all the time.  The answer is simple.  Money, and stress. As you can see on the side, the full trip from home to VIU is about 82km.  The drive to Parksville is 45km. I used to drive to Qualicum which is shorter but they changed the bus routes two years ago and made the trip much longer.  So I save about 35km of driving.  That doesn’t seem like much, but in terms of stress on both myself and my car, I find the drive along Highway 19 to be far more stressful, and potentially dangerous, than the extremely familiar Highway 4.

Ya I track that too at www.bcgasprices.com
Ya I track that too at www.bcgasprices.com

Even in a fuel efficient car like my previous 2004 Toyota Echo Hatchback and my even more efficient 2012 Toyota Prius C, this year I saved myself about 9730km of driving by taking the bus.  Not only does that mean 442L of fuel not burned and $505 saved on average, it also means 1.02 tonnes of CO2 not put into the atmosphere. (The buses would run anyway if I am on them or not of course).  Compared to buying a parking pass for either $400 or $600 at VIU and add in the wear and tear on the vehicle and the economic argument is easy as is the safety.  The time argument is the hard one but so far it works.

So now that you have two jobs….

As you might know, I decided to take on a new set of responsibilities (and have been honoured to be allowed to do so!).  So my burning question over the past 12 months in the back of my geeky and miserly brain has been… with the additional driving that I have had to do to attend to City Council business, does it still make sense to take the bus whenever I can?

Well here are the numbers for the past 12 months.

I parked at VIU 41 times = $175 daily parking fees
I drove to VIU and parked for free elsewhere 30 times
(this is my late classes on Wednesdays when I can’t take the bus…)

The only thing I don’t have exact numbers for is days I took the bus, but working backwards I figure I had about 139 “bus days”.  At $700 that works out to around $5 a day.  Which is exactly the same as the cash fare ($2.50 each way).

Average mileage of my Toyota Prius over 2015: 4.548L/100km = 0.04548 L/km (51.7 U.S. mpg).

Home to VIU distance: 82km
Home to Parksville distance: 47km
Difference: 35km

So this year the money I spent on driving all the way to VIU was:
35km * 71 days * 2 = 4970km extra driving past Parksville = 226L fuel *1.144$/L = $258.  Add $175 in parking fees and that’s $433.  CO2 emitted: 0.52 tonnes CO2.

For the bus trips the money I saved was: 35km*139 bus days*2 = 9730km avoided on bus = 442L fuel *1.144$/L = $505 saved = 1.02 tonnes CO2 not emitted.

So taking all of it together and comparing the two:
VIU Bus Pro Pass = $695.24 – $105 tax credit = $590 (15% tax credit)
Extra Driving = $258
Parking tickets = $175
Total with Bus = $1003
CO2 from Driving Parskville to VIU when needed = 0.52 tonnes

If I did not take the bus:
VIU “Econo” limited Parking pass = $400
Driving = $258+$505 = $763
Total without bus = $1163
If I get a VIU “Employee” pass, the cost rises to $600 and total is $1363.
CO2 from Driving from Parksville to VIU full time. = 1.52 tonnes

So I save $160 and 1 tonnes of CO2 not including wear and tear on the vehicle.

Update: You might be wondering how much of a difference the type of car makes.  The answer is a lot.  My Prius C gets 4.5L/100km or 51 US mpg.  If I instead took our 2007 Toyota Matrix which gets around 9L/100km or 26 US mpg the totals would be:

For the Bus: Fuel: 447L/$511 Total: $1386 and 1.03T of CO2

Without the Bus: 875L/$1001 (plus above) Total: $1912 and 2.02T of CO2.

So in an “average” mileage car I would save $526 and 2T of CO2.

Now these numbers are not going to be perfect but they should be pretty darn close to accurate. So even with the additional driving that I have had to do with the new City Council duties, it still makes sense for me to take the bus as much as possible both from a cost perspective and an environmental perspective.  And that does not include additional maintenance costs or consideration on safety.

Public Transit saves everyone money

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Click to see a full mockup schedule of a mid island commuter train service that I presented to the RDN in 2014.

Commuting isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  Especially with home price differences so great between Port Alberni and other mid-island communities I believe we will see more commuters, not less.  This is why I continue to advocate for transit options to open up between Parksville and Port Alberni either with a bus like the one between Parskville and Woodgrove or using the Railway (see the link).  The cost savings are substantial both to people and to the taxpayer in terms of maintenance on roadways and safety, which means more money in everyones pocket to spend on other things. The benefit to the environment and overall safety is obvious.

 

Why are my Taxes so High!? A City and Beaver Creek Comparison.

(I’ve updated the post with a correction on the VIRL library fees thanks to info from ACRD Director from Long Beach Tony Bennett)

People really love to complain about their taxes.  If they didn’t there wouldn’t be a meme about it (left).  And since the AVNews ran a story in December with the headline that the City was raising taxes by 7%, the questions and complaints have been pouring in.

Now, first things first, the City has not decided to raise taxes 7%.  In fact, it hasn’t decided anything.  The story was simply based off the first draft of the financial plan that City Staff have to create every year so that we know where we are starting from, what costs have risen over the year, what capital projects we committed to in the coming years, etc.  Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 11.30.02 AMThere are weeks of deliberations to go before a final plan is adopted.  I hope as many people as possible can either come to or watch online the public budget meetings that start next week.  You can see the full schedule and all info about the budget as it is created on the CPA website

The reason for this post though is because I wanted to share with you a specific email that I got from a resident.  His question I think encapsulates a lot of the discussion and tension in Port Alberni and in surrounding districts about the tax situation.  It also shows some of the misunderstanding and incomplete information people may have.  He’s given me permission to reproduce it here.

Here is what he said:

Hello Mr Alemany hope all is well and happy new year. Question, was chatting with friend who owns house off Kitsuksis, house worth 750k and he pays same amount of property tax as me whose house worth 220k. I get that he’s considered Beaver Creek but we pay water/garbage seperate from prop tax so why the Huge discrepancy? We all use Arena, Echo, their kids go to same schools, hospitals and drive on same roads. Only diff i can tell is some in city have sidewalks/street lights and in city we have fire dept. they have fire too but volunteer i understand. And like i said earlier garbage and water we have extra bills so that shouldnt factor into it. Am i missing something? The system here just dosnt seem fair especially since many of people on outskirts of town have way more money and nicer house then in town. Not all but on average. What do you think?

The text below is my response to him with some additions and I have added images and graphics so that it is better illustrated than just the email I sent him alone:

It’s a great question, and a very important one. It all comes down to knowing what services are actually subsidized or completely paid for by the provincial versus the city government.

It is easiest to say first what is covered by the province and we all pay the same: Hospitals and Schools [correction—>and Libraries] are the big ones,  on your tax form these rates are the same no matter if you are in the City or in Beaver Creek.

Here is my tax form for 2014 (I couldn’t find last years :)).  You can see the School, BC Assessment, Municipal Finance, and Regional Hospital rates.  These are all common whether you are in Port Alberni, Beaver Creek, Cherry Creek, etc.  By the way, my assessed value was $155,900 for this tax assessment.

TaxExampleProperty2014

Here is a Beaver Creek property tax notice also from 2014 for a total assessed value of $248,200.

PTx2014 copy 2

There are a few differences in Beaver Creek. First, there is a very small provincial “rural” tax rate (0.5600) that goes to the province for things like road work outside city limits.  There is also a small “Police Tax”…more on that in a second.  There is also a charge for the volunteer fire department and for the ACRD administration and a final one for water (which Beaver Creek buys in bulk from the City).  City residents have a similar, though smaller, ACRD charge on top of the “General Municipal” rate paid (9.00500) for all other services in the City and servicing the wider community.

By the way, the “Arena Parcel Tax” you see on my bill is common to all areas that originally agreed to pay for the new Multiplex.  It is not on the Beaver Creek bill possibly because that resident chose to pay the full amount at the time the Multiplex was built rather than have it added on to their tax bill until the Multiplex was paid off.  It does not go toward operation of the arena.

Let’s start with RCMP (image is from the Draft Financial plan in the January 11, 2016 agenda):

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 11.55.02 AM

RCMP is the most expense budget in the City, about $500 on the average City tax bill, even though it serves the whole Valley plus Bamfield. Beaver Creek residents pay a separate rate on their bill for police of $63 for the services of the RCMP. This is despite the fact that there are a few City employees that do the needed administrative work for the detachment in addition to the vast majority of the expense which is of course the RCMP officers themselves.

The RCMP cost is nearly twice as much  as the cost of all of the Administrative departments, with all their employees and managers and equipment of the City (Governance/Finance, Planning, EcDev, and Corporate Services) combined which only total around $3.5 Million or about $290 per average City tax bill for 5 divisions including the Heritage services.

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It’s worth noting that every single one of those departments in administration in the City are absolutely necessary in order to service the businesses, not-for-profits, organizations and service centres that all folks with “Port Alberni” on their home address probably use. All of gone through multiple rounds of downsizing and most continue to shrink as the City tries to cut costs.

Of those, only the Museum and Heritage services department could be considered a “luxury” compared to the administration necessities, however there is something to be said about preserving the arts, culture and history of the Alberni Valley which the Museum does so well and which the McLean Mill celebrates.  I am sure there would be readers who would say Heritage and Culture are necessities just as much as finance and bylaws.

You’ll also notice that in the ‘2016’ column at the bottom of each section under “% Increase over Prior Year” most have gone down, many significantly, while RCMP budgets continue to rise largely out of the control of the City and Provincial grants to the RCMP budget lines decline.

The next most expensive department in the City Department is Parks and Rec ($3.6 Million) which includes all the buildings like the Multiplex, the Pool, Echo Community Centre and the other major city buildings as well as the actual parks, fields and other amenities.  Beaver Creek residents pay no taxes towards these facilities.

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 12.36.19 PM

All of these require upkeep and operating costs. User fees only cover a very small portion of the costs, even when you include fees from people who live outside the City and use those facilities. All the city parks and upkeep and Harbour Quay and all people in them are included here too.

The next most expensive department is really a tie, between the Port Alberni Fire Department and City Engineering and Public Works.  Both are in the $3 Million range so I’ll include them both here:

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 12.43.01 PM Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 12.43.08 PM

PAFD  is of course a paid rather than volunteer department, though again Beaver Creek does benefit from them as PAFD and BCFD and Sproat Lake FD all have an automatic aid agreement so they attend each others major fires automatically which benefits the region because PAFD can often get there very quickly and it benefits PAFD because it boosts the number of people at a fire so there is more rotation if a fire is really bad.  It is interesting that Beaver Creek residents still pay roughly half ($122 on my assessed value)  the cost City residents pay for fire service even though BCFD is volunteer and PAFD is fully paid.  The PAFD is also in charge of medical first responder from Cathedral Grove to Sutton Pass.  You’ll see only modest increases in the PAFD budget mainly due to contractual wage increases and equipment maintenance.

As far as Engineering, Roads and City Works all roads in City Limits except Johnston/RiverRd/Highway 4 are taken care of and paid for by City taxpayers. Paving, upkeep, sidewalks, cleaning, signals, etc. Roads are horribly expensive. Repaving just one section of lower 3rd Avenue from Napier to Burde (375 metres) is budgeted at $250,000 which is around $20 for every City resident.  By contrast, the “rural provincial tax rate” levied by the provinces costs Beaver Creek residents only around $80 (again using my assessed value) to take care of all of the roads and other general engineering work needed in the rural areas.  That’d be only enough to do a few blocks of work a year in the City.

One Area that is often overlooked is the “External Services” which by its very name should indicate that these are areas that benefit more than only the City of Port Alberni.

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The big expense here is Bus service.  Currently buses do not run outside City limits, so this is wholly paid for by the City with help from standard funding from the Province.  If Beaver Creek or Cherry Creek or other residents did want to have bus service they would need to advocate that their ACRD directors join with BC Transit and the City in funding the service.  In Nanaimo, for example, the BC Transit service is actually run through their Regional District so that it services Nanaimo, Parksville and smaller areas in between like Nanoose and Cedar.  However it does not service Coombs because that area did not agree to pay for the service.

The other big ticket on the external services is the Library Service.. but this is a cost that is the same whether you are in the City or Region.  As of 2016, ACRD residents will see this as a separate tax rate on their bills split from the ACRD “E” (according to their area) line.  This is a cost that is exclusive to the City even though obviously the Library is something that all citizens can and should access.  The City pays for the Library through its association with the Vancouver Island Regional Library service so we can sometimes see costs rise when other communities build new libraries even when services here do not change.

The last departments are Water, Sewer, and Garbage:

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Water and Sewer are completely paid through user fees now so that is similar to Beaver Creek where you can pay for garbage pickup and you pay for water (which Beaver Creek now buys in bulk from the City) and your own septic services. That said, there are sometimes large projects that the city has to dip into its tax bank accounts in order to cover the cost of, say, a big road and sewer project or the new water treatment facility at China Creek that City taxpayers pay for that residents in outlying areas, even if they are paying for City water, are not paying for.

Long story short, there are a ton of things that Beaver Creek residents likely use or benefit from in the City of Port Alberni that they pay a fraction of the amount for in their taxes or fees, if they pay anything at all. So get your friend to buy you dinner. 😉

If the whole Valley was part of the City, tax rates would be much lower across the board because the average values of property would be higher and it would be spread out with more people, but the person in Beaver Creek would likely pay more tax than they do now, so good luck convincing them to join even if it is “fairer” for all especially for those on lowest incomes.

Hope that helps.

Chris