Discussions on integrating services within the Capital Region at a special Langford council meeting on Tuesday quickly turned to the elephant in the room.
“How many services does the Capital Regional District really have to provide… There’s a bigger picture that needs to be addressed,” said Langford Mayor Stew Young. “Is there an appetite for the (provincial) government to help us look at the regional district board, and the services they provide, and to really break it down to the essentials?”
George Abbott, the former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister, and Bob de Faye appeared before council to hear Langford’s thoughts on integrating services within the CRD.
The pair, representing the provincially funded Capital Integrated Services and Governance Initiative, listened intently while Langford council members shared their opinions on the matter.
“Everybody has their identity and we all want to keep what we’re doing because we believe what we’re doing is right. This council and staff are really committed to doing the best they can for the community,” Young said.
He noted the city has come a long way since incorporating in 1992. Back then, he said, they were working with such a small budget that any project or new service had a huge impact on their taxpayers.
“We tried to put a sidewalk in and our taxes went up five per cent … We had to look at a different way of delivering services.”
Langford couldn’t get to where it is now, Young said, by doing what Saanich or other core municipalities were doing.
“We’re not a copy of anywhere, we had to do our own thing,” he said. “There is this connection between council and the business community and we’ve nurtured that.”
Young added the city is growing and continues to offer more services to its residents because they continue to attract business to the area. Yet with all of that growth, he noted they only have 67 employees serving approximately 40,000 residents. He challenged Abbott and de Faye to find that in another municipality within the province.
Shifting to the topic of amalgamation, Young noted roughly 10 years ago Langford council unanimously supported a look at amalgamating with the City of Colwood. However, he said Colwood rejected the idea. “We tried,” he added with a shrug. “Nobody wants to amalgamate with Langford, but the people in Langford are getting good services.”
Joining the line of discussion, other council members had a hard time seeing how amalgamation would benefit their taxpayers.
“I just want to say we do have a lot of integrated services out here,” said Coun. Denise Blackwell, pointing to the West Shore RCMP, fire dispatch, the Greater Victoria Public Library and some programs through the CRD such as sewers. She noted the city participates in some, but not all of the CRD’s services. With a lot of services already integrated within West Shore communities she couldn’t see a lot of benefit to amalgamation.
Young was also quick to note, “if we amalgamate with somebody, our taxes go up.”
Abbott tried to steer the discussion away from the A word, reiterating that amalgamation was not the focus of this initiative.
“That’s not something (the province) wants to take on here.” He also noted there may not be a lot more integration that can be done, but maybe some important tweaks can be made. “It’s really good to hear the level of co-operation that already exists out here,” he added.
Coun. Winnie Sifert was quick to praise Langford Fire Rescue as an example of a service the city is already providing, but also works in co-operation with neighbouring municipalities. “The best service we have is our volunteer fire department,” she said.
Young added to that. “You build your community on volunteers … and that’s important.” He noted the city prides itself on the number of volunteers it has. “We know we have good people that want to volunteer,” he said. “That opportunity always has to be there … If you change that, then we’re not interested.” He noted sometimes integration can take away those volunteer opportunities, limiting involvement and weakening the community.
Langford council also prides itself on moving items through in a timely fashion, Young said. Further integrating services would be pointless if it meant it’ll take a year or two to get anything done, he added, and it must be cost effective at the end of the day.
Coun. Lillian Szpak noted, “I would keep the politics out of it and keep the practicality.”
Langford council was the last of the 13 CRD municipalities to meet with the Circle Square Solutions and Urban Systems team. An interim report is expected by the end of this month. That report will be followed by a second round of dialogue with all of the CRD municipalities in October. The group’s final report is expected sometime in November.