The stinky sewage debate in which Rossland, Trail, and Warfield have been embroiled in one form or another since before I arrived in our little valley in 1980, and which has been reeking with renewed vigour for the past four years, is going to the province for resolution.
Pity the pure bureaucrat or hired gun that has to fashion a reasonable solution out of this putrid mess. Like so many of these disputes, there is no right and wrong, just our’s and their’s.
Trail city council initiated the recent round of squabbling because the cost-sharing deal its political forbearers negotiated in the mid-1960s has not turned out so well. All the partners estimated their communities would grow and based the cost-sharing formula on those projections, and the size of the pipes and treatment plant needed to serve those anticipated populations.
In reality, all the communities have shrunk and 14,000 people and a struggling business sector are paying for a system built for 25,000. Trail predicted the biggest growth but actually shrunk the most.
The funding formula sees Trail pick up 69 per cent of ongoing capital expenses, and annual operating costs of $1.1 million, while Rossland and Warfield contribute 21 and 10 per cent respectively.
If based on current population, the split would be 59-27-14.
In addition to population, the formula also reflected the fact that Rossland saw merit in building its own treatment system and Trail benefited from having the sewage plant at Bear Creek. This location reduced the amount of local sewage mains the city had to pay for because it had the regional trunk line running through it and spurred growth on the east side of the river.
Trail wants the funding formula adjusted to reflect current population figures, which would save it more than $100,000 a year.
If Trail prevails with this approach, then city taxpayers should try the same argument on council: We were expecting six kids, but only had two, so we don’t use most of the house – give us a break on our taxes. Or maybe, their bankers would take the bait.
While Warfield council has accepted Trail’s position, Rossland has resisted. A mediator hired by the group failed to bring them together, but concluded the current funding formula was outdated and unfair.
Given their communities’ dependence on residential taxes, homeowners in both of the smaller municipalities already pay more for sewage treatment than their neighbours in Trail. A population-based formula would only make this inequity worse.
Rossland has agreed to base operating costs on current population, but points out that the size of infrastructure has not shrunk along with the population so capital contributions shouldn’t either.
The oversized plant and pipes still have to be maintained, so the plant size a municipality signed up for should be what it continues to pay to maintain, goes the Golden City’s argument.
But, as is usually the case when negotiating with Trail council, there isn’t much room to negotiate. Council’s position is that what is best for the city is the only fair and supportable position and anyone who suggests otherwise is a cad or brigand.
Remember the post regional recreation funding battle when council insisted that cost sharing based on population or usage was absurd and only an assessment-based formula would do?
While the impasse over cost sharing drags on, planning for an upgraded system to meet modern environmental standards – which demand more than primary treatment – is being dragged down by the dispute.
After several years of study, Stage 1 of a sewage treatment master plan was completed in 2007, but there has not been much action since. The plan estimated upgrading the system would cost at least $30 million.
With a bill like that looming, the discourse over funding can only get uglier. While the province may force an end to the current dispute, a new or overhauled plant and possible additional partners in Montrose and Fruitvale would evoke calls for a brand new deal.
Think of how much success the Europeans and other advanced nations are having in agreeing on how to bail out Greece and its lenders and you sort of get the picture. Except that the Europeans have better managed to put the Second World War behind them, than we have in getting over our cultural, political, economic and historical differences.
The conventional wisdom says that only with a district municipality will we be able get past all of these internecine battles and find peace, order and good government. Even if this debatable notion was in fact true and made economic sense, it would still beg the question, how would we ever get there?
I say we have the pols strap on the gloves like Liberal MP Justin Trudeau and Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau did recently.
The last man, or woman, standing buys the beer and gets to be mayor of the new merged city.
We could call it the Mighty Columbia Fighting District.
Raymond Masleck is a retired Trail Times Reporter.