Budget Pressures and Challenges

October 27, 2021
Council Column

In a recent letter to the editor a constituent complained that the City hasn’t moved quickly enough on the repairs to the Johnston Bridge, calling on residents to “start bothering those in charge” to make speedier decisions on such major issues and, essentially, to stop spending money on “less important” projects.

As Quesnel City Council heads into another budget cycle, the question of priorities is always forefront in our minds; as are questions of affordability, ratepayers’ willingness to pay, and Council’s legal limitations on taxation and spending for major infrastructure projects.
The Johnston Bridge project is a good case in point for all of these considerations.

From the moment the City was informed that this bridge had to be weight restricted due to significant structural issues, staff have been working on options for Council to consider to repair it. The development of these options takes time and requires significant analysis by specialist engineers. A report will be coming to Council soon with these experts’ recommendations.

However, Council also has to consider a project of this magnitude through the lens of other significant budget pressures, our ability to pay for it, and its time sensitivity.

There is a viable alternate route for trucks around the Johnston Bridge, and residents and lighter commercial and industrial vehicles can still cross the bridge, so Council has time to consider options for its repair. Council has also worked with the Cariboo Regional District, School District, and the Ministry of Transportation in an effort to ensure that Maple Drive is as safe as it can be for pedestrians and residents while we explore these options.

Council must also consider the costs of repairing the Johnston Bridge, currently estimated at around $7 million, in light of the City’s other significant budget pressures.

For example, as a result of new standards and regulations, the need to expand its existing footprint, and the need to recycle more, Council is faced with incremental capital costs for the current landfill that will be in the millions over the next few years.

Similarly, we have major capital projects that need to be undertaken to modernize our water system. Looming over our heads is also the possibility of having to build water treatment facilities, another project that is in the tens of millions.

These large-scale, high price tag projects are problematic for Council from a financing perspective, as they will all likely require referendums if we are not successful at obtaining grants for them and have to finance them ourselves. Unlike the provincial and federal governments, local governments cannot borrow to underwrite large capital projects without voter assent through either an alternate approval process or a referendum.

Council is hopeful that we’ve avoided the need to go to referendum for the replacement of our #1 Firehall as we’ve obtained a significant grant to renovate the existing hall. But, we have outstanding requests for a Centre for the Performing Arts, new gymnastics facility, and a new indoor hard court facility that would accommodate tennis, pickleball, and basketball in the winter months and during smoke or heat events in the summer – all of these projects would likely require a referendum too.

As Council formulates the 2022 capital budget, the Johnston Bridge repairs will be considered within the context of all these other priorities.

And, as for those “less important” projects that are going on in the meantime, most are funded by grants that are specifically issued to underwrite such initiatives and these projects are important to the long-term viability and resiliency of our community.

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