Premier Christy Clark has twisted the already-confusing sewage-treatment issue into a new knot with comments that have befuddled both the long-suffering taxpayers and the equally long-suffering people who have to build the new treatment system.
As Clark began her round of year-end interviews with media outlets on Monday, she dropped a bombshell in a conversation with CHEK News. Asked about the capital region’s sewage-treatment project, Clark said, “Yes I have had some concerns about it.”
She said the province will not pay its $248-million share of the money until the project is finished in 2018. “Because we are going to make sure that, for our part, the taxpayers’ money that people give us, that it’s going to be spent absolutely as well as it can be.”
Clark seemed to be saying that if the government didn’t like the sewage plant, she might not pony up her share of the money.
Capital Regional District directors must have poured themselves a stiff drink after hearing that one.
The CRD started down this road because the province ordered it in 2006. The directors have maintained that they were forced into it by provincial orders and new federal regulations. Suddenly, the complicated project became something like a nightmare.
On Tuesday, she clarified her stand in a interview with the Times Colonist’s Rob Shaw. The money will definitely be coming, but it won’t come until the end and it won’t be a penny more than $248 million.
But then, before anyone had a chance to breathe a sigh of relief, she threw another curveball.
“We are going to set milestones, fiscal and performance milestones, that the project needs to meet along the way,” Clark said.
The folks at the CRD could be forgiven for heading back to the bar for another stiff one.
Jack Hull, the interim wastewater director, said the initial agreement says nothing about milestones. The government said Thursday the three milestones are completion of the wastewater plant, the biosolids plant and the finished system.
Although her comments left CRD directors and staff scrambling for answers, there is nothing wrong with the idea of milestones. If you are building a house, the contractor has to meet certain targets. On a major project like this one, they make just as much sense.
However, when the contractor is building your house, you have to pay him a portion of the total price as each milestone is met. Why has that not been worked into the funding for sewage treatment? It leaves open the possibility the province could renege if it doesn’t like the finished system, although both Clark and NDP leader Adrian Dix said they are committed to paying if they are in power when the bill comes due.
Without some provision for interim payments, the CRD will have to borrow not only its own share of the money, but also enough to cover the province’s share. At the current municipal borrowing rate of 2.1 per cent, that means the region’s taxpayers could be on the hook for $19.8 million in interest while they wait for the provincial contribution. That amounts to about $115 per household.
Clark’s harmful comments about the province’s commitment to the project have been cleared up, although they should not have been made in the first place. The province and the CRD have to get on the same page about the “milestones.”
And Clark should rethink the notion of holding back all the money until the end. It places an unnecessary extra burden on regional taxpayers who are already footing a third of the bill and will be on the hook for still more if the project goes over budget.
© Copyright 2013