Muni Morsels: what to do with $1.2 million & exploring on-island testing

BIM receives COVID-19 relief funding; dedicates staff time into looking into on-island testing

The following are highlights from the Nov. 9 regular council meeting:

The ideas are already pouring in as to how Bowen could spend the money. 

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Bowen Island Municipality got word last week that it would receive a $1.27 million federal-provincial grant for COVID-19 restart and recovery. Bowen’s 2020 general operating budget was $8.6 million. 

All municipalities in B.C. are receiving the funding based on a per-capita formula. (The smaller the town, the more money per capita it gets, while still receiving less money than the big cities). “This is because small municipalities often lack a diverse tax base and the economies of scale to easily restart their operations,” explained a letter from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs deputy minister Kaye Krishna to BIM. 

“It’s a really significant contribution,” said BIM’s chief administrative officer Liam Edwards. “It’s more than double what I thought it was going to be.”

“That’s very welcoming news to us,” he said. 

From a financial perspective, BIM has been sheltered from the effects of COVID-19 and hasn’t seen the tumbling revenue of larger municipalities that rely on non-taxation revenue (like the City of Vancouver). 

So what will BIM spend the money on? The parameters are loosely laid out in the letter from the province and BIM is seeking more clarity, said Edwards. Eligible costs include: revenue shortfalls, facility reopening and operating, emergency planning and response, bylaw enforcement and protective services, computer and electronic technology costs, services for vulnerable persons, and other related costs. 

Edwards is advising moving slowly with spending the grant. “There’s no time constraint on the use of it,” he said, noting as well that this is a one-time grant and the future with COVID-19 is uncertain.

At the Nov. 9 council meeting, councillors largely agreed with Edwards’ approach. 

“We’re very much in the midst of COVID and we don’t know how long this is going to last, so precipitous spending because we have what appears to be windfall, at this point, is not a good plan,” said Coun. Maureen Nicholson. “Just staying the course and making good choices along the way is what I’m hoping for.”

BIM’s 2021 budget process is under way and the funds will be factored into that, said Edwards. In the short-term, BIM has had some COVID-related expenditures, such as personal protective equipment and plexiglass panes. Air quality improvement, in terms of air purification, is another expenditure they’re looking into now that 95 per cent of staff are back in the office. 

Council voted to send a thank-you letter to the ministry. 

Looking into an on-island testing facility

All this being said, BIM did take a possible (emphasis on possible) step toward spending some money. As it doesn’t look as though Vancouver Coastal Health has plans to set up a testing centre on Bowen, council unanimously passed a resolution for staff to work with Dr. Susanne Schloegl to figure out logistics and funding for such a service. Possible funding sources include the B.I. Community Foundation’s Resiliency Fund and the B.I. Health Centre Foundation. 

“Dr. Schloegel is very happy to be involved in this but she just can’t take on the responsibilities or working through all of the details,” said Nicholson, who brought forward the motion. 

“This is probably the biggest emergency in our lifetime,” said Coun. Rob Wynen.

“So whether it means looking for funding, or us even looking at within our own emergency services funding to see how we can get this money…I think it deserves a lot more financial attention from the municipality,” he said. 

“It seems like the kind of thing to do to help our unique island situation, where people would have to travel off Island,” said Coun. Sue Ellen Fast. “I like the idea of self-sufficiency.”

Mayor Gary Ander noted that of all the Gulf Islands, only Salt Spring has a testing facility, echoing that it’s unlikely the higher governments will invest in one on Bowen Island. 

Open vs. closed

The matter of open vs. closed  council meetings arose once again Monday evening. Coun. Rob Wynen voiced concern that council was proceeding into a closed meeting. What discussions can or must take place in a closed meeting are laid out in provincial legislation (the Community Charter). Wynen said he didn’t know why one major matter was being put to a closed meeting. “These decisions have major impacts…this one in particular, on future council decisions and financial and tax implications,” he told council. “And there’s no reason they should be in a closed council meeting.”

Wynen has previously said he was uncomfortable with not being able to discuss the closed council proceedings that saw BIM award a $3.6 million fire hall design and build contract last month. 

“That’s your personal opinion,” Ander told Wynen. “And in my opinion, it’s quite indicative of the use of that land and that’s why it’s in the closed.”

Other councillors and staff voiced discomfort with that level of detail being discussed in public. Council resolved to move into a closed meeting, though Wynen said he wouldn’t be attending a closed meeting on this matter. 

In its meeting highlights posted Tuesday, council released this information from the closed meeting: “Council received a recommendation from the Fire Hall Facilities Steering Committee that the whole of the Fire Hall site be held entirely for the Fire Hall and other future emergency related uses.”

Watch the entire meeting: 

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