Greater Victoria residents could be asked whether they support a major change to the $20-per-household Parks Land Acquisition Fund levy — diverting some of the funds raised specifically for buying park land to build capital projects such as park trails, washrooms and parking lots.
Capital Regional District parks committee members have directed staff to develop a consultation strategy to ask residents whether they would support both renewing the levy when it expires in 2019 and whether they would be willing to see some of the money it raises used for park capital projects.
Those directors in support argued Wednesday that diverting some of the funds for capital projects would enable the CRD to open up land behind gates in park reserve for want of capital funding.
But others said the public support for the levy was rooted in the CRD’s original promise the money raised would be used to buy land and nothing else.
“The question is asked: How did we get the public to support this land acquisition fund? And, to me, the answer is pretty clear,” said Victoria Coun. Geoff Young. “We were clear about what it was for and it had one clear and simple purpose: to acquire land. That’s why the public supported it.
“Now we are saying we are thinking of making it basically like an ear-marked tax that’s going to go to the parks system.”
Young conceded it’s expensive to open up new parks to the public but said those funds should be found during the normal budgetary process — not by tapping into a special levy for land acquisition.
CRD directors were so timid about introducing the levy that many municipalities first put a question on the 1999 municipal ballot asking residents whether they would support a $6 or $10 per household fee to acquire parkland.
They need not have worried. The fund, introduced in 2000, has been a CRD success story. Originally set at $10 per household, the now $20-per-household levy raises about $3.7 million a year. Over the past 16 years, it has enabled the CRD to contribute $36 million to buy (with partners) more than 4,500 hectares of land valued at more than $52 million.
But that extra land comes with extra costs. Currently, CRD parks spends about $3.92 million a year on capital projects. But a CRD staff report says that’s “insufficient to both build new facilities in parks and to repair and replace the existing inventory of assets, which is aging.”
They estimate there’s $20 million in unfunded capital projects in regional parks.
Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen said there is nothing to fear about asking the public whether they agree the parks-land acquisition fund should be used strictly for acquisition or to expand it for some facilities.
“I think this is a very worthwhile conversation to have with our community as to how do you want this money to be used,” he said.
“What are we afraid of? The public might say: ‘No, you should just land bank it.’ The public might very well be supportive of a wider use for this.”
View Royal Mayor David Screech agreed.
“Why do we underestimate the public? Surely if that is presented, that we’ve been doing this for years and now we need to take stock. We need to say: ‘We’ve achieved this. It’s been an incredible success, but we need to care for these places as well,’ ” Screech said.
Saanich Coun. Judy Brownoff said it’s important the public gets to use park land that is acquired.
“I support the idea that some component of the fund needs to go to the infrastructure improvements because as, we acquire these parklands, if we don’t have money to actually establish them whether it’s a trail or whatever, then they sit and people get upset because we haven’t opened the park yet,” Brownoff said.
But Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt said the fund’s impact would probably be reduced by half “if we start leaching funds out into capital.”
“We know there’s going to be an endless line of demands for capital within the parks system, and I think if we open that floodgate, we’re going to acquire, my guess would be one quarter of the land that we’ve acquired in the last 16 years,” Isitt said.