Emergency Services Building Faces Uphill Battle

A petition to tax property owners at Mount Washington in order to pay for an emergency services building, has failed. But one of the people behind the petition says they may be down, but they’re definitely not out.

Proposed Emergency Services Building, Mt Washington, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada

Mount Washington property owners were asked in November to approve setting up a local service area so the Regional District of Comox-Strathcona could collect extra taxes in order to pay for the building, which would have housed a permanent office and detention cell for the RCMP, an ambulance bay and a volunteer fire department (including a full-time fire chief). There would also be space in the building for Mount Washington Resort's first aid services.

The petition closed on Nov. 12, and only 39 per cent of the owners signed and returned petitions, according to Barb Randle at the Regional District of Comox-Strathcona. The petition needed a 66 per cent approval from property owners. And that 66 per cent also had to represent at least half of the total assessed property value (which is about $100 million).

“I’m taking a little bit of a different light on this,” says Bill Jackson, president of the Mount Washington Residents Association. “The petition was a failure because we didn’t get enough votes. But it was also a pleasant surprise.”
Jackson said there were 175 people who voted in favor of the building (out of 450). The Regional District received petitions from an approximate total of 300 owners, he said. “It was 70 per cent in favor – of the people who voted.”
“The main reason this didn’t go through is a lot of people never exercised their right to vote.”

Because of the unique situation homeowners are in on the mountain – they don’t own their property outright -- the issue didn’t qualify for a simple referendum process, which would only require 50 per cent plus one.

“The Local Government Act doesn’t recognize the owners up there as electors. They own property under lease rather than fee simple,” explained regional district administration officer Bob Vanderzwaag. “If they owned property under fee simple we could use a proper referendum petition process.”

To pass, the petition required 66 per cent of the property owners to vote in favor of the proposed emergency services building – significantly more than a regular referendum. In this situation, Vanderzwaag said, an unreturned petition was considered a “no” vote.

Although homeowners have been talking about the need for a fire department and regular policing at Mount Washington for many years, it was only in 1999 that a cohesive plan began to form, Jackson said.

Mount Washington Resort has donated two-thirds of an acre of land to house the emergency services building, and has agreed to pay for half of the $1.25 million cost to build it. Residents would have paid for the other half of the building as well as operating costs, through higher taxes.

“The tax breakdown is roughly $400 per $100,000 assessment per year,” Jackson said. And that would be the maximum. The idea will be to tax everyone a maximum of 70 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, over a 20-year term, to pay for the actual building. The rest would go towards buying firefighting equipment and operating the firehall.

There is still a possibility that Mount Washington property owners could hold another petition on a revamped proposal in the future. Jackson said that’s not out of the question. His next step, though, is to find out why people voted no – what was it about the proposal that prevented them from accepting it? He invites property owners to write to him – anonymously, if they wish -- at 1774 Linden Avenue, Comox, B.C. V9M 2L4. Or, e-mail him through the Residents’ Association web site at www.mw911.com.

“One way or another, we’re going to get this thing.” The Resort donated two-thirds of an acre of land to house the emergency services building, and had agreed to pay for half of the $1.25 million cost to build it. The petition asked residents to agree to a tax increase in order to pay for the other half of the building as well as operating costs.

The regional district mailed out petitions to the 450 owners at the mountain resort, including a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and also sent everyone reminders. Any petitions that were not returned were considered to be "no" votes.

Randle said it was too bad more property owners didn't return their petitions, because their responses would have given the regional district a better idea of what owners thought of the proposal.

She said there is still a possibility that Mount Washington property owners could hold another petition on a revamped proposal in the future.