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No Hydro rate deal for B.C. schools, energy minister says

Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett wasted little time Thursday rejecting a request from school boards for a break on B.C. Hydro rate increases.
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B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett, who is also responsible for the government's core review.

Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett wasted little time Thursday rejecting a request from school boards for a break on B.C. Hydro rate increases.

Bennett said in an interview that he has no plans to cut a special deal with school boards and risk opening the door to similar requests from other agencies.

“Where do you draw those lines?” he said. “OK, if you say school boards don’t have to pay the increase or they get a special rate, what about health authorities?

“I mean there’s a million different groups out there that would be looking for a special rate. It’s a very slippery slope and we can’t do it.”

Bennett announced last week that B.C. Hydro rates will increase 28 per cent over the next five years with the first nine-per-cent hike to take effect April 1.

B.C. School Trustees’ Association president Teresa Rezansoff sent a letter to Bennett this week asking for either an exemption for school boards or a reduced rate hike.

She warned that school boards will have to layoff staff and cut services to students if forced to bear the full cost of the increases.

“In the end these are all provincial dollars moving from one budget to another, with students caught in the middle,” Rezansoff said.

The province’s 60 public school boards already pay $35.5 million a year for electricity in 1,600 schools and buildings.

Rezansoff said the B.C. Hydro increases will add a further $4.1 million to that amount next year, while the accumulated cost over the next five years will be $29 million.

But Bennett said next year’s increase “represents less than one-tenth of one per cent” of school board budgets. “So it’s hard to square the position that this is extreme and it’s going to make it impossible to balance their budgets.”

The school boards counter that electricity rate increases are just the latest in a series of rising costs that the provincial government refuses to cover.

District budgets have remained static in the face of higher Medical Service Plan premiums, pension and insurance expenses, and other utility costs, boards say.

They also were recently instructed by Education Minister Peter Fassbender to find money to cover a 3.5 per cent increase for support staff.

“We recognize and respect the tight fiscal realities that the province is in, and the line that government’s trying to hold,” Rezansoff said. “But we see this exemption as a very good possibility of relief for us.”

lkines@timescolonist.com