In theory, Cortes Island receives a portion of the Provincial Gas Tax. A recent Strathcona Regional District report states, “as of January 1, 2020, the balance of Electoral Area B’s Gas Tax Reserve is approximately $565,325 and (this year) is expected to receive a 2020 transfer of $58,155 in addition to any interest earned on the balance.” According to Regional Director Noba Anderson, the amount keeps growing because Cortes has not been able to access these funds. “The SRD has still not developed any kind of application guide or internal policy around Gas Tax spending, although it has been on the CFO’s work plan I believe for at least five years.” On March 11, 2020, EASC turned down Linnaea’s application for $44,520 in Gas Tax dollars to purchase a heat pump.
How Linnaea Farm Serves Cortes Island
Linnaea Farm functions as one of Cortes Island’s community halls in everything but name. Some of its better known activities are: the Cortes Branch of the Vancouver Island Public Library, the Cortes museum’s “Wild Cortes—Woods, Wetlands & Waters” exhibit, Spark Point Music, TeenSzene, Homeschoolers of Cortes Island, Yoga Camp, the Children’s Forest Group, Literacy Now and Folk U. A number of community events, like Lovefest, are also held there.
CAO David Leitch’s Response
Cortes Island Regional Director Noba Anderson suggested that staff take a closer look at what Linnaea Farm does for the community. (Linnaea’s Executive Director, Tamara McPhail, repeated this idea later in the meeting, inviting the SRD to visit.)
SRD Chief Administrative Officer David Leitch’s response to Anderson was harsh, “I think that is really presumptuous and insulting of the work done here by staff. You were not privy to the conversations that were held. We do not need to know greater details of what Linnaea Farm does. UBCM (the Union of BC Municipalities) does not support that there is a true community benefit here. You have not shown that, you have not provided that.”
The Federal Gas Tax is administered by the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM). It is meant to provide “long-term and stable funding to local governments in British Columbia for investment in infrastructure and capacity building projects.” In our area, these funds come through the Community Works Fund.
“UBCM publishes annual project lists to disclose how Gas Tax funds are being spent in BC; of the 2,860 projects listed between 2016 and 2018, only 57 are associated with the search terms ‘club’, “search and rescue” or ‘society’.”
However, the report also seems to focus on areas with a developed infrastructure. The “Capital Regional District (population 383,360), Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako (population 37,896) and the Regional District of Nanaimo” (population 90,505). Lacking both the population and infrastructure, the Cortes community formed societies to run its community halls. They are far more likely to be among the UBCM’s 57 chosen projects than any similar buildings in Victoria or Nanaimo.
Chair Jim Abram gave Linnaea’s Executive Director an opportunity to talk, “You are speaking on a denial motion. I’m not sure you are going to be able to add anything to that. Unfairness? – One minute. What would you like to say?”
McPhail attempted to quickly describe operations at Linnaea, and the manner in which they currently move oil heaters from room to room to heat the building. She took three minutes, then responded to questions and comments.
The Crux Of The Matter
Anderson started laughing in frustration, when Leitch described the crux of the matter being whether this project had any benefit for the community.
“Director Anderson, I take objection towards your laughing towards that,” he said. “Linnaea Farm, as a whole, provides terrific community benefit. That has nothing to do with this application. Maybe you have a difficult time heating your facility at this time. I get it. You’re heating the facility, you’re providing all these services … (but) the government wants to know what additional community benefit would you provide for those $40,000? Don’t get caught up in thinking that just because you are doing a great service to the community, which you are, someone is going to give you money – you need to be provide a greater service.”
McPhail responded, “Adding more programs. We are also an emergency social services reception centre and could expand that.”
She offered to make a list of the additional services Linnaea could add, if they will look at it.
“If you want to provide that to Director Anderson, that’s fantastic, but I am going to tell you that because you think there are additional community benefits doesn’t mean they are meeting a tangible community benefit,” said Leitch.
A Double Standard
Director Anderson pointed out neither Mansons Hall or Gorge Hall were required to show the increased public benefit, when Gas Tax funding was used to put heat pumps into their facilities (about 2017/18).
“That bar was never required and UBCM funded them. There seems to be a very significant double standard. If I’m missing something, I just want the opportunity to fully understand it, so I’m not bringing back further information that isn’t what the committee needs,” said Anderson.
“On those two previous applications, did it say they were private institutions, or public?” asked Abram.
“They are all public.”
“Did it say it in writing, because what it says here [about Linnaea], is that it is a private institution,” said Abram.
“That is what the staff report says, but certainly not what Linnaea’s application says,” said Anderson. “It is no more privately owned than the fire halls or community halls. It is owned by a society [created for the community’s benefit].”
Private Vs Public Ownership
“This is black and white. I don’t see what Director Anderson doesn’t understand about this. If we do not own the facility, we are not going to provide any funds. If we funded community halls in the past, I think we made a serious mistake,” said Regional Director Gerald Whalley.
(Directors Whalley, Abram, Leigh and CAO Leitch were all present on the March 13, 2019, SRD Board meeting when Director Anderson explained that Cortes Island funds its community halls through societies created to further the public’s interests.)
Anderson responded, “If that is indeed the policy that the board takes on, that we are only going to fund our own internal services, then in essence Cortes cannot access its hundreds of thousands of dollars of community works funds except for parks.”
“The crux of the matter is not private/public ownership, it is a lack of community benefit” repeated Leitch.
In the SRD staff report that recommended Linnaea’s application be turned down, there was also a list of terms under which a new application might be approved:
- The applicant revising the application to meet UBCM’s eligibility requirements with respect to ensuring the level of community benefit.
- Clarification of the budget amounts, including:
- the difference between the two submitted quotes of $33,915 and $31,521 and the submitted budget base amount of $35,000 .
- the purpose of the $1,500 administration charge, who it is payable to and the level of project management involved. “Administration and overhead” charges are not eligible if claimed by the Ultimate Recipient or applicable local government.
- Removal of GST from the requested amount. Any excise tax is not eligible for reimbursement under the Gas Tax Program.
- The Regional District assuming direct responsibility for installation of the heat pump system.
- The SRD indicating support for the project through adoption of an authorizing bylaw that includes a contribution agreement between the SRD and the Ultimate Recipient (or other external agency administering) that sets out all pertinent commitments of both parties, the eligible costs to be covered, and the process for transferring funds.
Linnaea’s application will now proceed to the SRD Board with a recommendation that it be turned down.
Top photo credit: Wild Cortes exhibit at Linnaea Farm Education Centre – Courtesy Richard Truman from http://www.richardtrueman.com/