A forum to study amalgamation with the City of Victoria could cost about $750,000, with Saanich and Victoria each putting one third – $250,000 – towards the final estimated cost. The province would cover the rest with provincial funding not yet confirmed.
The public heard these figures and uncertainties as Saanich council ratified the non-binding referendum question that will appear on the municipal election ballots on Oct. 20 in both Saanich and Victoria. The non-binding question will test public support for future amalgamation talks – not amalgamation itself – between Saanich and Victoria.
Specifically, the question will ask residents in both communities whether they are “in favour of spending up to $250,000 for establishing a Citizens’ Assembly to explore the costs, benefits and disadvantages of the amalgamation between the District of Saanich and the City of Victoria.”
An earlier version of the question did not not include Saanich’s share for the citizens’ assembly, should residents in both communities approve future amalgamation talks, because the information was not available when Saanich and Victoria councillors held a historic joint meeting on June 26 to draft the question that will appear in the fall.
While an even earlier draft of the question omitted any cost references whatsoever, councillors from both communities eventually settled on the question that would include information about eventual costs.
“This is as neutral a question as possible, that can be put to the public,” said Coun. Susan Brice.
Supporters of amalgamation had previously questioned the inclusion of any cost figure, suggesting that it would bias voters against moving forward with future talks about amalgamation.
Coun. Colin Plant picked up on this point, when he repeated his earlier concerns about including any cost figures in the actual question, because it risks turning the question into an economic question. But he also acknowledged that the majority of both councils supported that direction.
He also addressed residents concerned about the costs. He said the investment will be worth it, because it will provide valuable information (assuming voters support plans for a citizens’ assembly).
Coun. Karen Harper echoed this point in stressing that the fall referendum is just the first step in a process that could or could not lead to amalgamation. She also added that a growing number of issues such housing and homelessness cut across municipal boundaries.
“We need to start looking for regional solutions,” she said.
Coun. Fred Haynes said he is not convinced which way Saanich would vote. But he said he is convinced that this question gives them the clarity to make a choice.
Coun. Leif Wergeland was less sure as he lobbied but failed to include wording that would include some specific reference to Saanich on grounds that both Saanich and Victoria had agreed to put the same question on the ballot.
Other comments focused on the current absence of provincial funding. Staff told council that the province might not be able to come up with its full share of $250,000. Saanich, in other words, might end up spending up more than $250,000 (assuming voters support a citizens’ assembly).
“I hope that the $250,000 will be enough,” said Plant. “If not, we have a challenge.”
Brice, for her part, publicly declared that she would oppose spending more than $250,000.
Mayor Richard Atwell downplayed the possibility that the province might not come to the table with the full amount of $250,000, but also acknowledged concerns about the reliability of the estimated cost for the citizens’ assembly.
Couns. Judy Brownoff, Leif Wergeland and Vicki Sanders opposed ratification of the referendum question.
Brownoff pointed to the possibility of Saanich having to foot more than $250,000 towards any future citizens’ assembly and questioned the rationale behind the referendum.
Compared to other issues such as housing, governance does not rank high among public priorities, she said.
“I don’t think it’s a priority for our residents,” she said.
Should Saanich residents support plans for a citizens’ assembly, the funding would come from Saanich’s strategic initiatives fund.