Tofino’s municipal council is condemning “racist” and “bigoted” emails they say they received in response to a proposed 1 per cent ecosystem service fee being added to Tofino’s water rates that would have been transferred to the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation’s Tribal Park Allies program.
“It seems, from talking to all council members individually yesterday, this has landed worse than flat and I apologize to council for the comments that you have received and how it impacted you as individuals,” said district CAO Bob MacPherson during Feb. 23’s regular meeting.
“I have particular regret for some of the comments that I’ve seen directed at Tla-o-qui-aht that make reference to threats and extortion that is being exercised. I want to be really clear for all of council, for my fellow staff members and for anybody watching, that has not been the case at all.”
MacPherson suggested the 1 per cent ecosystem service fee was intended, in part, to recognize that Tofino’s water reservoirs are located within the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation’s Tribal Park on Meares Island.
“What was intended was a small fee that would recognize that this is unceded land that is protected within a Park and that Tla-o-qui-aht went to court to see it protected from logging some years ago and continue to make efforts to ensure its protection,” he said.
“I don’t have any apology to make to people who had their bigotry triggered by this. It’s unfortunate that this conversation has brought the worst in people, but I hope that it underlines for us a conversation that I think is overdue in Tofino that we need to talk about our roles and living together here on the peninsula…It’s had an unfortunate start, but I hope that, from this unfortunate start, we continue to talk about things like title and rights and how we can work together on making sure that we have a watershed that is protected for the very long term.”
The 1 per cent fee was part of a 14 per cent increase to the district’s water rates that had been proposed alongside a 13 per cent increase to the district’s sewer rates pertaining to backlogged maintenance and repairs identified as necessary by the district’s director of infrastructure and public works Fraser Work.
Work said the 13 per cent increase to the water and sewer rates related to infrastructure came from an investigation he undertook after being hired to the position last year, which showed the town was “short on funds required to support operations and maintenance in critical areas.”
“All of the costs associated with the sewer and water utilities can often be high and significant in nature. This is something that I and the whole team takes very seriously,” he said. “As we continue to learn by doing, as we kick over the rocks of things that have to be done that maybe aren’t being done as frequently as required and defining what the long term operations and maintenance needs of the utility are, we expect that we will be able to drill down and get to a much better, more comprehensive and more defensible long term plan for how these monies need to be spent on an annual basis.”
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The 13 per cent increase was approved by council during a March 1 special council meeting and is expected to take effect on April 1. Council declined to approve the additional 1 per cent ecosystem service fee, but agreed to continue the conversation with more public engagement.
Tofino’s director of financial services Nyla Attiana explained that the district’s water and sewer rates had not been updated since 2015.
She suggested the average single family residential home currently uses 200 cubic metres of water per year and pays about $555 in water and sewer rates each year. The 13 per cent hike will result in about $73 being added to their annual bill. The additional 1 per cent Tribal Parks contribution would have raised that increase by $2 a year.
She said the average resort consumes 4,060 cubic metres of water per year and is currently charged $12,992 in water and sewer rates each year. The 13 per cent hike will result in a roughly $1,670 increase to their annual bill. The additional 1 per cent contribution would have raised that increase by $78 a year.
Coun. Britt Chalmers said the idea for the 1 per cent ecosystem service fee to be transferred to the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation came from council and had been carefully thought out.
“It was an idea that was discussed at strategic planning and one that we were unanimously proud of. We talked about reconciliation and how, as a council, we can do better and be better, both as individuals and members leading our community,” she said. “The Meares Island watershed is a natural asset that we benefit from both in the quality of water and that this clean water continues to be available to us due in no small part to the collective effort of the Clayoquot blockades, a collective effort that today we seek to recognize and to continue in the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation…More than anything my heart was sickened to hear the words of extortion and the racist comments of many of the letters we received.”
She acknowledged the district should have discussed the proposed fee more openly and transparently and communicated the reasoning behind it to the public better, suggesting that council conduct a more extensive public process in the future.
“I hope that when and if it does come that way, the community will listen to the conversation with fresh ears, ask informed and engaged questions and give it a chance for success,” she said.
Coun. Al Anderson said the district has work to do to explain the fee to the residents that would be paying it.
“There’s some work to be done on this so that this is well received by Tofino and its population and not misunderstood and doesn’t become a point of rubbing salt into old wounds or a point of raising any number of bigoted remarks or accusations of extortion,” he said. “This is a process of relationship building, it’s a recognition of the generosity of the Tla-oq-ui-aht and the workings of the past that have brought us to a good working relationship and we can’t let that be destroyed by some reaction to this. I think we made a mistake in council at not fleshing this out more before we brought it to the council table and I think that’s shown by the reaction that we’ve received over the last few days.”
Coun. Duncan McMaster reiterated Chalmers’ claim that the idea for the fee came from council and he declined to let MacPherson take the blame.
“I appreciate the CAO offering to fall on his sword for this matter but, I’m sorry Bob, we’re all in this together, so we’re all going to wear this one,” he said.
He added though that he would not support the additional 1 per cent fee.
“A 13 per cent tax increase is a tough pill to swallow, especially in this period of uncertainty. However, our operational costs are increasing and our infrastructure is failing and we can no longer continue applying band-aid solutions,” he said.
“I do not want this discussion to centre around the merits of the Tribal Park Allies, which I believe has good intentions. As a matter of principle, I cannot support transferring any public funds to any organization where there is no transparency or accountability.”
He noted Tofino is not the only community facing infrastructure problems, suggesting he’s been “beating the infrastructure drum” since arriving on council nine years ago.
“We have been lax in our upkeep. For the first time in my Tofino tenure, we have a qualified and experienced engineer as manager of public works. There’s little point in hiring qualified people if we’re not going to listen to their recommendations,” he said. “As individuals, we often put off repairs to our house or our car, but council is expected to protect the entire community and time is running out before our infrastructure fails with the resultant cost being even more expensive.”
He suggested council move ahead with the 13 per cent increase to address its infrastructure and work on a community engagement process to bring the 1 per cent ecosystem service fee back to the table in the future.
“I would like to thank the many people who emailed or phoned and provided valuable insight, however the racist comments made are not acceptable, nor are the personal attacks on members of council,” he said.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the 1 per cent fee was part of a proposed 14 per cent increase to the district’s water and sewer rates. The 1 per cent fee was, in fact, part of a proposed 14 per cent increase to the district’s water rates only. The proposed sewer rate increase was 13 per cent.