Wednesday, June 12, 2024
June 12, 2024

Opinion: Salt Spring’s ‘Unique’ form of governance


The Driftwood, of late, has published numerous opinion pieces with much handwringing over the mission statement (or lack thereof) of the Islands Trust. I’ll venture to say that whatever that mission statement may be, it will have as much relevance for the civic and social wellbeing of this community as the proverbial arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

On any given day, in almost any newspaper from any community across the country, there will be an acknowledgement of the “housing crisis.” In that regard, Salt Spring is in the same boat. One significant difference, though, is that we lack a governance structure with authority to address it. Every other community of our size has municipal status, enabling coordinated decision-making. That’s not to say that those decisions are coherent or prudent . . . only that there is, at least, the possibility for such an outcome.

By contrast, we have a disparate, dysfunctional and dizzying array of autonomous and quasi-autonomous silos (each with its own governing body, letters patent/charter/bylaws/mandate), some of which intersect while others appear to exist in an isolated bubble. By way of example, much of the island is serviced by a checkerboard of “water improvement districts,” each of which is mandated to provide potable water to its members. Overlaying this checkerboard is the fire improvement district whose mandate, not surprisingly, is to eradicate the hot stuff . . . which requires access to the wet stuff. One might reasonably expect that pipes of the various water districts would be of sufficient gauge to satisfy the fire service . . . an expectation that presumes coordination. Oops. And this is just one example.

A casual peek at our property tax statements offers interesting revelations. In the last decade, our overall property taxes have increased by 67 per cent. For “local services,” the changes have ranged from negligible (the hospital) to double (fire district), with the Islands Trust coming in at an increase of 50 per cent and CRD at 72 per cent. While some of these increases may be easily justified (labour costs), some of those same costs may be attributed to redundancies. For argument’s sake, how much could be saved through centralized administration as opposed to the current situation where each of these entities necessitates its own budget/administrative staff?

Aside from these obvious, tangible costs, this diffused structure has another, more insidious cost . . . that of undermining and frustrating civic engagement. The old adage that you can’t fight city hall becomes even more fraught when you can’t even determine with whom to take up the fight. How many of us understand how and with whom to navigate to find answers: do we go to the fire department to get a street number for a new home; to the CRD; to the Islands Trust; to BC Hydro? How many members of young, working families can prioritize the time to attend the assorted meetings of these numerous taxing authorities? How are people with limited transportation expected to attend/participate?

If we really hope to do more than constantly bemoan our problems, perhaps it’s time that we abandon our quaint dysfunction and enter the real world.

The writer is a Salt Spring resident.

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