RDEK commits $1.2 million to Windermere water project

Funding equal to cost of buying Parr Utilities building

The proposal to buy Parr Utilities as part of the Windermere water project will be a little lighter on resident’s pocketbooks thanks to a significant funding boost from the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK).

The cost to buy the Parr Utilities company and building is estimated to cost $6.7 million; $5.5 million for the company and $1.2 million for the associated building. The RDEK board made the decision last Friday, June 9, to give $1.2 million to the project through Community Works funds.

“From the outset of the public consultation last August, the community made it clear any proposal to purchase Parr Utilities should include the purchase of the building,” explains Wendy Booth, RDEK Electoral Area F director. “We are focused on reaching an agreement that is as affordable as possible for the community and securing Community Works funds will make a huge difference.”

The negotiation process is still underway between the RDEK and Parr Utilities. At the May RDEK board meeting, the directors made the decision to seek elector assent for the purchase via referendum.

Rod Turnbull, the current chairperson of the Windermere Utility Advisory Commission, is happy with the RDEK’s proposal to buy Parr Utilities and the building, and to seek consensus by referendum.

“After gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, now we’re down to ‘maybe we can buy the company and buy the building’,” sums up Mr. Turnbull.

He says after years of back and forth, trying to come up with a plan that everyone can agree to, this seems like a good solution.

“You own it yourself; you control it yourself, and the people that own it are responsible to the taxpayers,” said Mr. Turnbull.

The issue of water in Windermere goes back to 2006, when the Province changed the drinking water regulations in response to new information about the health risks facing community water systems. The higher standard for quality put Windermere’s water under the bar. The Windermere Water system has been under a Water Quality Advisory since then.

The motion to buy Parr Utilities, which provides provincial-standard tested water to several communities in the Windermere area, came about after public consultation and an independent assessment of all options, including construction of a new treatment plant; purchase of bulk treated water from Parr Utilities, which was previously rejected by the community in a 2011 referendum, or to buy Parr Utilities. The latter option has come out on top, and is now expanded to include the purchase of the building.

Ms. Booth says this plan has been made after a great deal of consultation with the water users in Windermere town centre, where the water quality advisory exists.

“I do think it’s the best thing for the community,” says Ms. Booth. “Staff and myself and the community have worked quite hard on this project for a number of years and we are at a decision point.”

The RDEK plans to hold two referendums in the fall of 2017. One will be for the Windermere Water Service Area regarding the purchase of the water treatment plant and building, and a second parallel referendum, which will include the existing Parr customers to establish a larger water service area.

A referendum vote means those entitled to vote must be a resident of B.C. They must be a resident of or a registered owner of land in the service area for at least 30 days prior to the day of registration, which means renters can vote. For a referendum to be successful, the majority who participate must vote in favour– 50 per cent plus one person.

The alternative method for gaining approval to buy Parr Utilities was by petition. In a petition, all owners of land, including corporations and those from out of province – but not including tenants – within the service area are entitled to sign. However, in a petition, it must be signed by owners of at least half the parcels of land that would be charged for the service. If a petition is not returned, it is counted as a vote of opposition.

The Windermere Utility Advisory is in favour of the referendum option. Mr. Turnbull says as the only permanent resident on his block, he asked his part-time neighbours if they would fill out a petition.

“Not one said they would even bother,” says Mr. Turnbull. For each petition left on the counter or tossed in the bin, there would be another ‘no’ vote.

“A lot of them really don’t care,” says Mr. Turnbull of the out-of-province homeowners in Windermere. “They’re more affluent than the permanent residents that are here, so budgets aren’t as much a concern.”

Ms. Booth says the next steps for the RDEK will be to engage the community on the topic, so voters are informed when the decision time comes.

The RDEK board has authorized staff to submit an application to the Gas Tax Strategic Priorities Fund for the project, for the maximum allowed of $6 million. However, RDEK staff do not expect to know if they are successful in this grant until after the referendum has taken place. The RDEK is looking for other funding opportunities to reduce the overall projected cost of the project.