After this summer’s wildfires, B.C. Premier John Horgan pledged to restructure the province’s spending to put more at the front end of the season to reduce forest fuels around communities before they face the threat of evacuation.
With the staggering damage of recent flooding across southern B.C., he says a more fundamental shift is needed, after nearly 20 years of leaving local governments in charge of flood control, competing for grants to advance the work. Horgan called it a “bad call” by the Gordon Campbell B.C. Liberal government in 2003.
“One of the issues previous governments had done is devolved responsibility for diking to municipalities,” Horgan said after a tour and meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Nov. 26. “The intent was to give local control and autonomy, and I support that in principle, but the consequence of that is that local rate payers have been asked to take on an extraordinary burden that historically had been handled by the two other orders of government.”
Trudeau made no specific commitments, after touring the devastation in the Abbotsford area by air.
“I was pleased to be able to see the situation in Abbotsford and the Sumas Prairie but I know that there’s lots more work to be done,” Trudeau said. “The federal government will be there and I will be there, as is right to do.”
Horgan and Trudeau agreed only to form a joint committee on the issue, and for each level of government to match public donations to the Canadian Red Cross flood relief fund to provide immediate aid.
An example of the current state of provincial assistance is the “Flood Risk Assessment, Mapping and Mitigation Planning” program, administered by the Union of B.C. Municipalities. It offers grants of up to $150,000 for eligible communities “to ensure they have accurate knowledge of the flood hazards they face and develop effective strategies to mitigate and prepare for those risks.”
The program is currently not accepting applications, and like most federal-provincial funds, it is oversubscribed every year.
The issue has been an annual focus of the UBCM for a decade or more, for road and bridge construction as well as flood protection. In 2013, former Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard co-authored a report calling for a return to a 1980s Social Credit government system of setting aside one point of income tax revenue and six per cent of sales, fuel and resource revenues into an infrastructure bank.
The fund would provide stable assistance for needed works, rather than setting out pots of money and making municipalities compete for it in a basketball-style “jump ball” each year, Leonard said.