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Island mayors warn of tax hikes and service cuts if 911 costs are passed on to their residents

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A call-taker at the E-Comm 911 dispatch centre. Just over a year ago, eight Island municipalities were told the cost for RCMP E-Comm 911 dispatch calls would be added to their municipal budgets as of April 1, 2022. E-COMM

The mayors of eight Island municipalities are warning that taxes will rise or services will suffer if senior governments insist on downloading the cost of E-Comm 911 services onto stretched municipal budgets.

The group, representing Colwood, Ladysmith, Langford, North Cowichan, North Saanich, Sidney, Sooke and View Royal — communities served by the RCMP — says the move will cost them $3.59 million, and they are asking the province to phase in the costs over a longer period.

“It’s an expensive problem, because it’s an unplanned-for expense,” said Sooke Mayor Maja Tait, noting the municipalities were blindsided by the news last year. Just over a year ago, all eight districts were told the cost for RCMP E-Comm 911 dispatch calls would be added to their municipal budgets as of April 1, 2022. Previously, that cost had been paid 70 per cent by the province and 30 per cent by Ottawa. The province has proposed phasing the costs in over three years.

Tait said in Sooke, it means an extra $261,000 a year by 2024, which will require a tax increase of 2.84 per cent.

In Langford, the cost is over $1 million a year, requiring a tax increase of 3.23 per cent to cover it.

The average tax increase across the eight districts to cover the added cost would be just under 2.5 per cent, which the group says means many areas will have to forego ­additional policing resources, despite increased demand.

Tait said no one likes to pay more taxes, but in a community like Sooke, which is in the midst of a growth phase and requires upgraded infrastructure, amenities and services, the added costs are too much to handle without increasing taxes.

“It would hinder our ability to advance significant projects, and we’re growing,” she said. “And with that growth, we also need other additional resources like police services, fire response and even the inner workings of our municipality just to ensure service delivery.”

In a letter to Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, the mayors said they are already dealing with increasing policing costs in part because of the new RCMP contract.

“We trust you can understand why another burden such as the one proposed by downloading the RCMP E-Comm 911 dispatch costs is untenable,” they wrote.

The group is asking the province to delay the downloading for one year, extend the period over which it will be phased in and consult with municipalities.

The 911 service has been funded through federal and provincial budgets, an arrangement that remains in place for many other regions in the province, but will expire next year in the South Vancouver Island dispatch region.

Tait said the Island contingent has not been given a good explanation for why it has been singled out, other than that the province is looking into it.

Saying it has heard the mayors’ concerns, the provincial government says it has been in discussions with the eight Island municipalities and is trying to secure funding to buy time to work on the issue.

According to the Public Safety Ministry, things being considered in assessing other options will include financial impacts to municipalities as they recover from COVID-19 and recommendations from the Special Committee on reforming the Police Act

aduffy@timescolonist.com