Columbia Shuswap Regional District manager of Operations Management Darcy Mooney presents a report to the CSRD board on ongoing negotiations regarding provision of fire suppression services to Electoral Area B by the City of Revelstoke. -Image credit: Barb Brouwer

Debate heats up over fire protection

Revelstoke and regional district at odds over fire suppression agreement

The City of Revelstoke Council is being asked to reconsider its decision to cut fire protection services to a “specified area” of the neighbouring rural area as of Dec. 31.

The city has been providing the service to CSRD Electoral Area B under an agreement crafted between the two organizations 37 years ago.

Revelstoke Mayor Mark McKee says the makeup of the rural area is very different now, with properties getting bigger, and businesses setting up shop.

“Everything has changed, requiring more equipment, more sophisticated equipment, and the bottom line is more water,” McKee says, pointing out the city is also responsible for the grasslands by the river. “When you look at the fire season this province has had and the recent grassland fires in Alberta and Saskatchewan, it reinforces the importance of what we are trying to accomplish here and the need for more and better equipment, and more water.”

Negotiations have been ongoing since CSRD approached the city in 2015 about modernizing the outdated agreement, sometimes in what regional district manager of operations management Darcy Mooney calls an “unusual manner.”

Over the course of negotiations, the CSRD has received two draft agreements from a Fernie lawyer working on behalf of the City of Revelstoke.

“To CSRD, to receive a document from a lawyer is an unusual negotiation style and part of the reason negotiations are taking as long as they are,” says Mooney, noting the regional district, which pays six per cent of Revelstoke’s total annual fire service budget, realized in June it would probably be impossible to complete a new agreement by the end of 2017 and asked Revelstoke council for a one-year extension.

As well, Mooney says that the regional district believed all aspects of the agreement were on the table until a September 25 letter to the board from Revelstoke advised the purchase of a water tender – at a cost of anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000 depending on whether a new or used vehicle is purchased – was to be borne by CSRD.

Then came an Oct. 13 letter to the CSRD board from City of Revelstoke chief administrative officer Allan Chabot, which outlined some of the city’s concerns, including availability of water in the rural area due to a lack of hydrants and static water, and that certain basic requirements such as a water tender are, in the city’s view, non-negotiable.

Chabot also advised the city would be pulling the plug on providing fire protection in order “to create an impetus and momentum towards arriving at a replacement agreement.”

Regional district CAO Charles Hamilton takes issue with Chabot’s statement.

“The CSRD’s understanding was the same as that of Mr. Chabot; in other words, the city wanted to renegotiate the agreement and not to actually terminate the services,” he says. “If the city had wanted to terminate the services, a clear and unequivocal notice ought to have been provided to that effect, so that the CSRD and the affected residents would have had sufficient time to explore alternatives.”

At the CSRD’s Oct. 19 board meeting in Salmon Arm, chair Rhona Martin offered Area B director Loni Parker the opportunity to speak to the matter, even though the board, including Revelstoke Mayor Mark McKee, had agreed to a motion to ask the City of Revelstoke to extend the deadline at a meeting slated for Oct. 24.

“This has been a difficult negotiation; I never thought we would have such difficulties and I have been very frustrated with the language,” said Parker. “I have been doing this for 24 years and over the better part of years we have done great things with Revelstoke, working together for the betterment of Area B and city residents.”

Visibly shaken, Parker told directors CSRD had agreed to support funding for a new tender in conversations with Revelstoke Fire Chief Rob Gerard.

“We were actually willing to put money in the budget for a tender that would support both city and area B residents, then the city wanted a telescope truck,” she said angrily. “Then what happened was our equipment fell off the table. We have been contributing since 1980; now we’re gonna have to pay for new equipment after we’ve been supporting them for so long.”

Finance Manager Jodi Pierce says Revelstoke provides CSRD with their fire services budget based on assessment every year. It determines what Area B’s share is.

For 2017, the fire services budget is $2.1 million for the City of Revelstoke; that includes $325,00 going into their reserve fund to pay for things like a water tender, fire halls etc. and $80, 000 for capital equipment for hoses, breathing apparatus, turnout gear and more.

“We are already contributing to the capital expenditures and the reserve funds within the city’s fire budget but we have no capital reserve fund and we cannot borrow for more than five years without going to public assent,” said Pierce. “So in order to get a tender, we’re gonna have to pay $500,000; that’s a big chunk of cash for the 249 properties in the area and even if we spread it over five years, that in itself is over $300 per property per year.”

Pierce says that for 2017, Area B residents are contributing $135,000 for fire suppression based on property assessment. That amount represents about $250 for the average property. Adding in the cost of a new tender will take fire suppression costs up to about $65o a year per property owner – more than doubling the costs for fire suppression alone.

Without fire protection services, property owners, some of whose homes are in the neighbourhood of $4 million, would be looking at a huge jump in insurance costs – if they could get insurance.

“The number of calls (for fire suppression services to Area B) over the past five years has averaged about five calls per year,” Pierce said. “I am not comfortable pushing something through and I agree we’re being a little bit blackmailed here.”

Echoing Mooney’s observation that good progress has been made during the negotiations, Hamilton noted that Revelstoke Mayor Mark McKee, while supportive of a motion to extend the Dec. 31 deadline, sees the issue from both sides.

“I am confident we can come to the terms of the agreement, but not before Dec. 31 and I see that as being extremely problematic,” said Hamilton. “It’s counter to a June meeting where I specifically asked if an agreement is not ratified will services be summarily withdrawn. I sensed proper assurance that would not happen.”

At the end of discussion, directors unanimously agreed on a motion to request that the City of Revelstoke council consider a new one- or two-year interim agreement that would have the CSRD provide for and implement a financial model to purchase a water tender over the longer term, and in the interim subsidize city’s water shuttling capability with the supply of contracted water hauling resources and address other apparatus needs, and that the CSRD draft an interim agreement which addresses the City of Revelstoke’s concerns on liability issues.

McKee also expressed confidence.

“I just want to recognize and thank staff from both sides for all the hard work they have done in getting the agreement to where it is today,” says McKee. ” I recognize the great relationship the city and regional district has had over the years and I am confident that relationship will continue.”

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