Sidney to borrow up to $10 million for new fire hall

Largest borrowing in Sidney's history will not go to the electorate, as Town opts for assent-free borrowing.

Sidney's existing fire hall is more than 30 years old and is slated to be replaced.

(Updated to correct comments attributed to Mayor Steve Price)

Concern that “the powers of no” could mobilize against them has prompted Sidney town council to proceed with assent-free borrowing of up to $10 million for its new fire hall.

Heralded as the largest borrowing of its kind in Sidney’s history, the money is expected to cover the construction of a proposed community safety building on municipal property south of the Mary Winspear Centre, near the current skate park close to the Pat Bay Highway. The building — a combined fire hall, ambulance station and emergency response facility — is estimated to cost between $5 and $8 million. The larger threshold gives the town some wiggle room if needed.

The decision to borrow the money directly was not unanimous. Three councillors Monday night argued that early in the process, council had promised the public they would used the Alternate Approvals Process (AAP) — or counter-petition — to get the electorate’s assent to borrowing. Under the AAP, 10 per cent of registered voters (902 people) would be given 30 days to indicate their opposition to borrowing the money.

Mayor Steve Price said he wanted the assent-free borrowing option because of the possibly risk that certain groups could mobilize.

“My very real concern is that certain groups of individuals who have been spreading misinformation via petitions this year have made it clear they were ready to do it again with the CSB and potentially put our community at physical and financial risk,” Price stated in an email to the PNR Tuesday morning, referring as well to letters in the local paper which have come out against borrowing.

“As mayor I can not let that happen to our residents,” he continued. “I can not risk our firefighters’ or our residents’ lives.”

Councillors Barbara Fallot, Peter Wainwright and Erin Bremner-Mitchell felt using the AAP was the way to go, after council had promised to use it during the early discussions about the project.

“It’s what we said we were going to do,” said Fallot. “It isn’t about delaying it … we have an obligation to residents to do things in an appropriate process.”

Wainwright added in cases in the past where Sidney used the AAP, it succeeded cleanly.

“This is the largest borrowing the Town has ever done,” he said, “and in the past, with smaller numbers, the Town has gone with the AAP.”

Wainwright said there’s already a perception in the community that council doesn’t listen.

“Not doing the AAP adds to that and gives the perception that council doesn’t give people, the electorate, credit for having common sense.”

None of the three councillors opposed to the assent-free borrowing option are opposed to the project itself.

However Price said he’s not willing to take the risk that the AAP fails, which would force the Town to go to a referendum, adding time and cost.

“There has been no significant, legitimate opposition to the fire hall from the general population; but there will be once certain groups get a chance to put more misleading information out there,” he said, adding he wasn’t prepared to gamble on increased costs, especially since the town intends on building it.

Coun. Mervyn Lougher-Goodey added he feels opposition — especially based on false information — is a real possibility.

“People vote with their heart, rather than with their logic,” he said.

Coun. Cam McLennan added delaying the project could put people at risk.

“This is something we need,” he said. “And everyone will cry when the (existing) fire hall is lost in an earthquake.”

In a 4-3 vote, council set in motion the assent-free borrowing bylaw.

What that means, is the Town has a threshold of borrowing it can do, based on an annual debt payment limit (principle and interest) of $952,625 — or five per cent of Sidney’s annual revenues.

Sidney’s current debt payments amount to $330,500. The $10 million for the community safety building project would add around $509,000, leaving room for an additional $113,000 in assent-free borrowing capacity.

Town staff point out that the municipality can actually borrow five times the assent-free limit — but that is a different process altogether.

The borrowing bylaw will be drawn up by staff and presented to council for approval soon.