Regina City Hall seeks higher numbers on waste-water petition

June 14, 2013 - 12:53pm Updated: June 14, 2013 - 10:23pm
Mayor Michael Fougere at WWTP funding announcement in council chambers. Patrick Book/CJME Mayor Michael Fougere and deputy city manager Dorian Wandzura at WWTP funding an Rendering of new wastewater treatment plant. Patrick Book/CJME Jim Holmes from Regina Water Watch outside city hall. Patrick Book/CJME Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski at WWTP funding announcement in council chambers
Mayor Michael Fougere at WWTP funding announcement in council chambers. Patrick Book/CJME
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Regina mayor Michael Fougere was trying to celebrate a huge investment into a pricy waste-water treatment plant replacement, but instead, he wound up doing damage control on Friday.

Fougere and Tom Lukiwski, the Conservative MP for Regina-Lumsden-Lake Centre, got together at City Hall Friday morning to unveil a long-awaited contribution to the $224 million project. It is expected to be one of the largest capital projects in Regina's history which is why city council voted to pursue a public-private partnership, or P3, agreement instead of a more traditional funding and construction model.

But the focus shifted after Regina Water Watch (RWW), a group of concerned citizens, environmental activists, and union personnel, accused the City of trying to make it harder for their petition for a referendum on the project to succeed.

RWW's disapproval with the P3 structure was the main motivator behind the group's efforts. They believe the entire water system, both drinking water and sewage, is too precious to be put into the hands of a private corporation, arguing the profit motive could lead to cut corners and reduced safeguards or significantly higher water bills for property owners. They also oppose the funding plan itself, arguing that the City's assertion that the P3 model will save taxpayers more than $75 million hasn't been sufficiently proven yet.

The Cities Act requires a petition have enough valid signatures in a three-month span to represent 10 per cent of a city's population—based  on the latest census data—in order to trigger a referendum. RWW has been circulating their's for about three months. A large army of volunteers focusing on collecting signatures at large events like Mosaic meant RWW had managed to drum up more than 19,000 signatures with nearly a week before the list would have to be submitted to the City. That would mean only 300 more would be necessary to reach the minimum requirement.

Standing outside City Hall Friday morning, the group showed reporters an email authored by City Clerk Joni Swidnicki that RWW representative Jim Holmes received on Thursday afternoon. It indicates that Swidnicki has requested that the province allow her to use health card information as the benchmark figure instead of the census population. That would mean a total population of 207,429 instead of 193,100, requiring RWW to collect roughly 1,400 more signatures.

"They're doing it a week away from us reaching that goal. The timing is problematic," Holmes said. He still feels the group will be able to reach even the higher target, even speculating that the city's brazen move to change the goalposts at the last minute will bring the petition even more attention. But he said the change in numbers isn't the most troubling thing about the move.

"What democratic government would change the rules for citizens trying to have their say in the middle of that? It's like changing the election rules (of who can vote) in the middle of a provincial or federal election...It is legally permissible but I think it is morally reprehensible."

When pressed by reporters, Fougere gave a somewhat nebulous response. At first he insisted that the City was merely trying to "seek clarity" on which figure would be used to certify the petition.

"We want to be clear what the number is so we all know what it is," Fougere told reporters. When challenged that the legislation dictates population figure alone he replied, "That may well be what it's going to be, but if the request is made to the minister, he will clarify it and say what it's going to be."

A copy of the letter Swidnicki sent to Government Relations Minister Jim Reiter further explains the City's position. It notes that the City was granted permission to use health information data when redrawing ward boundaries because it felt that data more accurately represented Regina's population. Swidnicki acknowledges in the letter that the request was being made just a week before the petition deadline and asks the minister to respond quickly.

Reiter admitted in a telephone interview Friday afternoon that he hasn't had a chance to go over the City's request with staff from his ministry yet. At first blush, however, he said he would be reluctant to sign off on the idea.

"I want to consult with my officials first, but my initial reaction to this is I would be somewhat reluctant to do this," he said. "There are issues around using health numbers for this. Typically referendum numbers—there may be some exceptions in the past but none that I'm aware of—typically it is census numbers that are used. This would sort of be the minister wading into a local issue as well."

Earlier in the week the City also issued a public service announcement and a news release to media outlets that stressed the P3 model would be more beneficial to taxpayers than funding the entire project publicly. Despite that push from City Hall, Mayor Fougere was adamant that the City is not trying to stop the petition effort or to subvert the democratic process.

"That's their right and we support that process. But we want to make sure (citizens) have the full information. What we're doing is providing information, clarity of information, so people know why this council has agreed to and wants a P3," he said.

City council chose to pursue a P3 structure for the project in part because that was the only way the City would be able to access federal funding for the hugely expensive plant. The federal P3 Canada fund will be providing up to $58.5 million for construction costs, depending on the final price tag of the project (which has an expected variable of plus or minus 15 per cent because of the difficulty to predict costs for high-technology facilities). But that funding was contingent on the City utilizing a P3 structure.

"P3s don't work in every case but in this one they certainly do," Lukiwski told reporters Friday. "Regina's application was extremely solid and in this case it makes sense because it reduces risks to taxpayers... There are safeguards built in to the P3 model that ensure taxpayers are getting the best value for their dollar."

For example, he continued, cost over-runs would be paid for by the private sector firm that is chosen to design, build, finance, and operate the firm for 30 years. He also stressed that the P3 fund evaluation includes a cost/benefit analysis and that projects aren't approved unless the applicant can demonstrate that there will be lower costs than a traditional procurement model.

Reiter said he will have his decision early next week. RWW is required to turn the petition over to the city clerk's office by Thursday. Swidnicki and her staff then have a month to determine if the petition is valid. If it's approved, the City would have to hold a vote within nine months.