Fernie’s population has surpassed 5,000, which could mean an 18 per cent tax increase, says CAO Norm McInnis.
The City of Fernie currently pays a provincial policing tax of about $365,000 per year. Now that its population has crossed the 5,000 resident threshold, it will be required to enter into a Municipal Police Unit Agreement (MPUA) with the province and will instead be paying about $1.3 million per year to run a municipal RCMP detachment.
Fernie’s population is 5,249 according to 2016 census data released Feb. 8 by Statistics Canada. It has grown 18 per cent since the last census in 2011, when it was 4,448. The new total does not include West Fernie, which will be incorporated into the city in 2018.
The city has no money saved to cover the 365 per cent rise in policing costs. Its 2017 five-year financial plan called for a gradual tax increase to cover the expense. There would have been $1.75 million available at the time of the next census in 2021.
Without any reserves, the city might be shifting the burden onto taxpayers. McInnis said there could be an 18 per cent tax increase to pay for the MPUA.
McInnis said both the city and the province have been caught unprepared by the population increase. Recent communications from Stats BC, the Ministry of Public Safety and RCMP department heads suggested that the city’s population was actually in decline, he said.
“Typically [the province] works well in advance with communities that are reaching that 5,000 threshold,” he said. “The information we got even just a couple months ago is that [the province] is not prepared to sit down with us at this point because they did not see us reaching that threshold.”
He reasoned the city would not be responsible for the additional policing costs in April 2017, as is required under provincial legislation.
“My position right now is we had these discussions recently [and there] was no indication that the city of Fernie would be responsible for this magnitude of cost,” he said. “I’m anticipating some sort of agreement that we will end up making with the province.”
“We have a conference call this afternoon with staff of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General to start a dialogue and to see what options might be available,” said McInnis on Feb. 10. “The city will be seeking some relief from a single year increase of 18 per cent.”
The additional costs would not change police services in the Elk Valley, nor would the MPUA require the city to build a new detachment building. Part of the $1.3 million annual increase would pay to lease unused jail cells at the current detachment building from the federal government, said McInnis.
Fernie’s population has been hovering around 5,000 for at least 20 years. The 1996 census counted 4,898 residents. In 2001, the population dropped to 4,611. In 2006 it dropped again to 4,217 before increasing to 4,448 in 2011.