The decision of whether or not to incorporate West Fernie into the city is in the hands of West Fernie residents. The Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) has sent out an information package and petition to all residents in the affected area detailing the proposed servicing and restructure project and asking for their approval.
Roughly 120 people came out to a public meeting held last Wednesday to hear a presentation by the RDEK in the hopes of making an informed decision.
“The purpose of the meeting was to provide residents and property owners with detailed information on the project and the petition process that will determine whether residents want it to move ahead,” commented Area A Director Mike Sosnowski. “Having an opportunity to hear concerns and to understand where people need more information will help us to ensure people have a clear understanding of the project, so it was great to see so many people come out to the meeting.”
Sosnowski, with the help of RDEK staff, went over the three main components of the project - servicing: providing/improving water, sewer, and storm drainage systems; financing; utilizing grants, securing additional grants, and borrowing money to pay for servicing improvements; and governance restructure: joining the city of Fernie.
Representing the city of Fernie was Mayor Mary Giuliano, as well as councillors Dan McSkimming and Willard Ripley. Giuliano recognized the project comes with a large and daunting price tag for West Fernie residents.
“We understand that the city rate of tax is higher than the regional district, so taxes will be phased over a five year period before they reach a full increase,” she explained. “We have also negotiated with the province for a restructure package where the province will pay the maximum amount allowed in payment for the restructuring, and that amounts to about $600,000.”
Giuliano went on to say, “The city wants to make sure that this transition, if it does happen, is painless for the residents of Fernie... Council is really pleased and welcomes the possibility of having West Fernie officially become part of Fernie's future.”
Following the presentation, the floor was opened up to give residents a chance to voice their questions and concerns. And they didn't hold back.
Some of the issues brought forward included the possible change of lifestyle, the fact that West Fernie residents have chosen to live out of the city for a reason, a difference in bylaws – specifically allowing chickens in backyards, further developments to West Fernie, and how the city would handle snow removal come winter. Residents questioned why the project was 84 per cent funded and not 100 per cent, what the benefit for West Fernie residents is, what happens if funding runs out before the project is finished, and why the RDEK is giving away the tax revenue West Fernie brings in.
Sosnowski did his best to address each comment, but as the meeting grew heated, Giuliano reminded West Fernie residents of the city's intentions.
“Having West Fernie come into Fernie is not really benefiting us as much as it's going to benefit you, because we're considering the safety of all of you,” she said.
Fernie councillor Dan McSkimming stepped up to share council's stance on the controversial project.
“In no way, shape or form do we want to change your lifestyle. In no, way, shape or form do we have all the answers,” he admitted. “It's a challenge with our own budget and our own roads and the things that we do.
“The way it's been explained to me, is that if and when West Fernie was to be a part of the city, we have a document called the Official Community Plan, and it would have to be amended, and there would have to be a West Fernie addendum that the people of West Fernie would build, and design, and say, 'this is our lifestyle, these are the things that we want to have'.”
McSkimming added, “It wouldn't be perfect for you, and it wouldn't be perfect for us, but our whole idea behind this is to help facilitate and hopefully correct the problems and the issues down the road with the septic systems and the water systems in West Fernie.”
For the restructure to proceed, community assent is required. The RDEK will need to receive petitions in favour of the project from at least 177 property owners in the service area by July 21.
If the petition indicates community support, the next step will be for the city of Fernie to confirm the support of their residents for the boundary extension. Construction would then begin with Phase 1, and only the property owners within that phase would pay for that portion of the project. Property owners in future phases would continue to pay rural taxes and would not pay anything into the upgrade project until their phase of construction moves ahead.
If the petition does not indicate community support, the project will not proceed. However, the West Fernie Waterworks District (WFWD) will still need to begin upgrading the water infrastructure, requiring an annual tax of roughly $600 on all properties in the WFWD.
For more information on the project and the petition process, go to www.westfernie.ca.