Referendum could help secure funds to replace Crystal Pool, minister says

Holding a referendum on the Crystal Pool replacement project could help the City of Victoria secure senior government funding, according to provincial Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson.

Victoria hopes to receive enough senior government funding for the project through the federal/provincial Investing In Canada Plan to avoid the need to go to a borrowing referendum on the $69.4-million project.

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But in a letter to Mayor Lisa Helps, Robinson references the city’s decision not to go to a vote.

“While the city has the authority to make such a decision, large-scale projects that demonstrate both public and financial support through a referendum (or some sort of public approval process) are identified as lower risk under the program assessment,” Robinson writes.

Helps said the city has been clear “that if we need to hold a referendum to fund the project, we absolutely will. That’s been the plan from the very beginning.

“At the same time,” she said, “I think it’s in the public interest and the fiscal interest of everybody that if we do go out to referendum, we go out with a very clear amount — not saying ‘to authorize the city to borrow up to $40 million or $50 million or $27 million.’ ”

The city has $10 million in reserves earmarked for the project and has already received confirmation of $6 million in gas-tax funding, which is secure until March 31, 2019. If funding for the project is not confirmed at that date, the city would have to seek an extension.

The hope is that the federal and provincial governments will each agree to fund 40 per cent of the costs, with the city picking up 20 per cent, Helps said.

But if the provincial government, for example, covers a smaller portion of the project, the city “could close the gap by borrowing from ourselves,” Helps said.

“We don’t want to excite our residents by having an unnecessary referendum, but if we need a referendum to get the project fully funded, we absolutely will.”

Meanwhile, Helps rebuffed a suggestion that correspondence from senior government officials indicates the city is skating on thin ice when it comes to funding for the project.

In a letter included in this week’s council agenda package, federal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi notes that proposed projects must first be prioritized by the province before being submitted to Infrastructure Canada for consideration.

Robinson says in her letter that provincial project approvals under ICIP are not expected to be finalized this fiscal year.

“I appreciate that time is of the essence for this project as the city would like to commence construction in 2018; however, I must also emphasize that projects that award tender prior to funding approval are ineligible for program funding,” Robinson writes.

“It does push us to next year,” Helps said.

“But I guess that’s just the reality of the way that provincial and federal dollars flow. We have had strong indications from the province that no one wants to see us lose that $6 million.”

Helps said all public engagement the city has done to date shows the public’s response to replacing the Crystal Pool is “overwhelmingly positive.”

“The public support is kind of unlike anything we’ve seen for projects in the past. I think there’s overwhelming support,” she said.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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