A Private Debate

By Jason Youmans
Monday Magazine

Will the province heed public’s demands?

The people may have spoken, but it remains unclear whether the province is ready to listen.

Following consultations with local residents and industry—and a response that overwhelmingly favoured public ownership and operation of the CRD’s impending secondary sewage treatment system—the provincial government may be hardening its position in favour of private involvement in the provision of wastewater services.

This shift is evident in the evolving language of letters received by the CRD from the various provincial politicians with a stake in the outcome.

When the province first announced that it would fund a third of the scheme’s capital costs, premier Gordon Campbell told the annual meeting of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities that, “We’re going to insist on one condition: that Partnerships BC take a hard look at how that project might be built as a public-private partnership.”

Then there was Barry Penner’s December 14, 2007, letter which entreated the CRD “to examine the opportunity to save money, transfer risk and add value through a public private partnership.”

However, the most recent missive to the CRD from on high, which came by way of community and rural development minister Ben Stewart this July, is even more firm. Stewart writes, “A Public-Private Partnership (PPP) will be the preferred procurement option unless an alternative option achieves better value for taxpayers.”

Saanich city councillor and Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee member Vic Derman is unsure what the province will demand of the regional government in terms of private investment in the system.

“We held meetings with the general public on ownership issues—public approaches versus a P3 design-build-operate model—and the public that came out, over 95 percent, said, ‘We want it public.’ So basically, the public sentiment seems to be that they want public ownership. The province, though, seems to be attaching their funding to the fact that we must meet their requirements on that respect, and who knows what that’s going to be. The province may come and say ‘No, you don’t get any money unless this much of it is P3, or all of it is P3. What level of it will have to be P3, I don’t know.”

Derman says it’s time the CRD start looking at the project in terms of what would be best for the region, rather than what is best for meeting the provincial government’s agenda.

Meanwhile, Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee chair Judy Brownoff doesn’t share Derman’s pessimism about what the province will dictate in terms of private involvement.

“I can tell you that our staff have been very strong on the messaging on this project, what we expect as politicians, what the vote was, and when I met with him—we met with Minister Stewart—I reiterated what staff have been saying, which is that the McLoughlin site fits into the rest of the publicly owned facilities, we see this as being publicly owned, publicly operated.”

A vote at the CALWM committee table agreed to an approximately 80/20 public-private ratio, whereby Brownoff says there may be opportunities for private operation of elements of the system, such as a future waste-to-energy facility, since the CRD does not currently have in-house expertise to do that.