Mayor Kerry Cook wants to seize on what she says is a short window of opportunity in regards to offering fringe area residents fire protection.
“I am willing to provide fire protection services to rural residents at a cost that reflects the type of service we are delivering and providing to the rural areas,” she said during Tuesday’s council meeting. “I don’t believe we have to compromise the level of service to the level that they are agreeing to paying.”
It was the first time since the law suit was launched by the CRD in December seeking to make the city keep to its original offer of a five-year term, and the subsequent one-year agreement resulting from mediation reached this month, that mayor and council have spoken publicly about the issue.
Cook acknowledged how difficult the last three months have been because of the legal action between the city and the CRD.
“I was in a majority that supported the October resolution for a five-year agreement and I was the minority decision of council to turn down the fire-year agreement and go to a one-year agreement,” she said.
It’s not about pointing fingers and finding fault, it’s about moving forward to find an agreed-to amount, she added.
“The reason I did not support getting away from the five-year agreement was because I was simply not willing to risk losing the $700,000 plus that we received for providing fire protection,” Cook said. “It would be a huge hardship to my taxpayers and the city.”
It’s unfortunate that historically, when the city was looking at building a new fire hall it didn’t enter into a longterm agreement with the CRD at that point, she suggested.
Coun. Ivan Bonnell noted the CRD is pursuing the option of providing its own service and he fully understands as a level of government they have the right to do that.
“Until they run that discussion out with their residents and make a decision post 2013 there’s really no point from my perspective for the city to be making any comments about fire protection.”
The biggest challenge is financing the capital costs and debt of the new fire hall, he added.
“It’s been the cost-driver that’s driven everybody around the bend. We inherited that decision and there’s no getting away from that debt.”
Whether it’s done by the city itself or in co-operation with the CRD will be yet to be seen, Bonnell said.
Coun. Geoff Bourdon agreed fire protection has been a contentious issue.
“Regardless of where this goes, because it is within the CRD’s right to go set up their own fire protection, moving forward regardless of the outcome we’ll either have an agreement or a deficit that we’ll have to deal with as a council,” he said.
Zacharias said she is very relieved to be out of the legal challenges.
“As a former CRD director from 2005 to 2008 in Area D we took great pride in building a good working relationship with the city,” she recalled. “After being elected to the city I’ve taken great pride in working on the relationship.”
There was a “cloud hanging over” during the time, she said.
“During my time as a CRD director there was a lot of support for the fire hall to be built to accommodate the future needs of the city and the rural fringe. The fire hall we had was so small and in such a concentrated area that it no longer served its purpose.”
Zacharias added she is hopeful a longterm agreement can be reached.
Walters also said she did not vote with the majority to cancel the five-year term.
“I hope this extension will allow both the city and the CRD to come forward with another option that will be fair to all concerned,” she said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous and makes no sense whatsoever and is not fair to the citizens of both the city and the CRD and build another fire hall.”
Citizens living in the fringe area are citizens who live, work and play in Williams Lake as well, she added.
“I keep that thought in my mind and I do think for the City of Williams Lake and I know we do provide service for the area. Hopefully it’s not too late and we can come forward and work this out.”
Coun. Surinderpal Rathor was on the council in 2005 and 2008 when the decision to build the fire hall was made.
“I supported the new fire hall based on the demand and the need, not only by the city, but from outside the city boundary also, with the view the new fire hall would serve us for years and years,” he said.
The cost went over, right or wrong, he added, but regardless somebody woke up one day and said they didn’t want to pay for it.
“I don’t blame the CRD staff or directors, but I want to remind everyone that my job as a councillor is to my citizens. I’m here to protect the city’s expenses and taxes as the CRD staff and directors are.”
Echoing Cook’s statement that it would have been ideal to work out a longterm agreement before building the fire hall, Rathor said the city and CRD had warning from the provincial government in 1993 that it wanted the two parties to come up with an agreement of their own. Something should have been done earlier, he suggested.
“With the 2013 agreement we’re losing $150,000 plus. It’s not a little money and I do understand about my colleagues singing the song of what will happen in 2014?” he said. “My suggestion is that we meet with the CRD and come up with a solution. If we don’t meet we are not doing what our citizens elected us to do.”
In motion Cook suggested the city write to the CRD stating the city is still interested in providing rural fire protection and the two parties need to find a cost that’s acceptable to both parties.
Her motion was accepted unanimously, although Coun. Danica Hughes was absent.
The CRD will be hosting a public meeting about fire protection on Friday, March 22 at the Gibraltar Room, at 5:30 p.m.