The now long-gone sani dump location in Fernie. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)

The now long-gone sani dump location in Fernie. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)

Opinion: An ode to the people’s commode

The Free Press Editor Scott Tibballs on the City of Fernie’s sani dump situation

And with a hefty kick, the municipal sani dump issue has gone clattering down the road courtesy of the City of Fernie council.

The saga that broke into the public consciousness almost a year ago will now linger into 2023 at the very least, with (notably expensive) plans to install a temporary sani dump location in Fernie struck from the lineup as of last week’s council meeting.

How did we get here? Well that’s a head-scratcher for sure. There’s a lot of water under the bridge and a lot of backstory, but the gist of it is that the City of Fernie paved over a perfectly good sani dump location in its excitement to spend grant money on making the Visitor Information Centre’s car park look pretty.

They had their reasons, and grants are good and all, but the end result is the community is without a service it had grown accustomed to, there’s no replacement on the horizon and a visitor-focused location that had some benefit for locals is now little more than a whole bunch of unappealing pavement.

When the news broke earlier this year that the sani dump would be removed with no plans for a replacement, the reaction was poor. The city’s efforts to soothe fears by declaring it was looking for a temporary (and permanent) solution did little but make those same people aghast that the timelines didn’t overlap to prevent a gap in service.

Now summer is closer to its end than its beginning, the window of camping season is closing, and the city was shocked by a $420K price tag on installing a temporary sani dump location in town. (The cost of re-doing the car park at the VIC was around $160K).

Of course the council would reject such a cost – it’s three times the cost of paving over the old sani dump.

But… the City of Fernie qualifies as a “Resort Municipality” and takes advantage of the benefits it gets from a tourism-based economy. To help that economy along, it makes sense for the city to not only have its own sani dump services (thus driving visitation) but also its own camp ground to go along with such a service. Two things the city now does not have, despite being a big destination for road warriors and their money.

It was a mistake for this council to remove the sani dump service. Was it a mistake to move it from where it was? Probably not, but its removal needed to be delayed and coordinated with a replacement. Instead, the city appears to have gotten caught in a trap wherein it engaged only with the two stakeholders it had an office phone line to call: The Fernie Chamber of Commerce, which operates the VIC and likely doesn’t want the responsibility of managing a city service, and Tourism Fernie, which likely would prefer a keystone car park like the Fairy Creek Falls trailhead not be choked with lines of RVs and trailers lining up to dump liquid waste. How they missed the users themselves is another question.

Instead we are here: With councillor Phil Iddon rightfully making the observation on August 8 that even if the city went ahead with the temporary location, it wouldn’t be completed anytime soon.

With an election in October, the next council therefore gets to decide if the city should provide a municipal sani dump location at all. The (majority of the) current council appears to have been content with quietly removing the service, but blow-back had staff scrambling for a solution without the councillors themselves piping up all too often during public meetings (besides Iddon, who was critical of the initial decision and dogged in his quest for updates).

I think this may be a case where the city got all starry-eyed with the grants that the higher tiers of government were waving around in 2020 and 2021.

Fernie, as it should, took advantage of rapid-fire pandemic grants by applying when and where it could – with legitimate projects that needed some love.

One such project was the VIC car park, and the sani dump was collateral.

Grants are great, but what good is a grant if it’s poured out on the lowest bidder for a project that the community has decided doesn’t add any value for them?

Scott Tibballs is editor of The Free Press.

READ MORE: Fernie’s temporary sani dump plans get flushed
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