The decision over the fate of Peachland’s Visitor Information Centre (VIC) has been held over to the next council meeting, in a bid by Mayor Cindy Fortin to ensure a new operating agreement with the VIC’s operators, the Peachland Chamber of Commerce, results in more “bang for the taxpayer’s buck.”
The VIC agreement recommended for adoption by municipal staff on April 3 would see council enter into a 4.5 year contract with the chamber for VIC services that provide the VIC with a budget increase of $18,000 in the first year of the contract (actual budget impact in 2015 is quoted at $9,000), with a two per cent increase to their fee for service each year until the contract expires in 2020.
A clause would be included that allows for transitional training funding that would be requested of council if there was a proven need.
The contract would also require that the VIC operate five days per week, not less than seven hours per day, with one of those days being Saturday from Labour Day until June 30.
In a committee of the whole meeting held on April 3, councillors voted 4 to 3 in favour of a deferral to delay the decision in order to reassess the information outlined in the Visitor Information Centre Service Review, presented by Councillor Keith Thom.
Thom, along with councillors Pam Cunningham and Mike Kent, was appointed to chair a committee tasked with reviewing the VIC’s deliverables and identifying and costing ways in which the services might be provided.
The committee was instructed to meet with members of the chamber’s executive and report their findings to council on April 3.
In his report, Councillor Thom told his colleagues that a thorough review of the VIC’s current operating agreement revealed 49 deliverables, one of which remains outstanding as it is not due until the end of May.
Upon reviewing the proposed on contract and of the committee summary, Fortin said she was reluctant to make a decision that would commit council to providing over $330,000 in tax dollars over 4.5 years, without proof that it would be used to benefit the town.
“I thought the committee’s suggestions of what needs to be done were excellent,” Fortin told The View in a follow-up interview on April 15.
“However, the chamber’s track record operating the VIC over the last few years is not very good, yet they continuously come and ask for more money and I can’t, in all good conscience, commit without some kind of probationary period first. They need to prove that they deserve that money,” she added.
In his report to council during Tuesday’s committee of the whole meeting, Thom reminded Fortin that the VIC had met its deliverables, and provided examples of other VIC arrangements across B.C., as evidence to support the chamber’s request for the proposed budget fee for service increases.
“The annual fee for service costs (including utilities and rent), paid by comparative communities range from $45,000 to $114,625 per year,” Thom read, quoting the committee report.
The static building costs of the entire building, according to the chamber, totaled $19,000 in 2014.
The portion allocated to the VIC costs approximately $9,000 to run.
“Five-year contracts are the most common, and all centres are open year-round, with reduced hours during the less busy season,” he noted.
The six communities selected by the district staff, who conducted the research for the comparative models, included Hope, Fernie, Oliver, Gibsons, Smithers and Creston, each of which were identified as communities that are similar in size and consider tourism an economic driver. The six VIC arrangements were compared with respect to contract terms, operational days, other details and annual costs.
According to the report Thom read, Hope, with a population of 5,969, operates their VIC on a two-year contract and remains open seven days per week from May to September and five days per week between October and April.
Their VIC is closed for three weeks in January/February and the District of Hope pays for some of the utilities.
The VIC’s operating costs are reportedly $94,800 per year.
Dubious of what she deemed suspiciously high numbers, Fortin told councillors that she contacted each community and felt that the numbers reported by the committee, did not match the ones she was given by each district.
“There’re inconsistencies here,” Fortin told Thom.
“The Hope VIC, for example, actually promotes a region that includes 10,000 people,” she began as she continued to deconstruct the list.
“Now I’m confused,” Fortin said as she concluded.
“This information you’ve provided doesn’t exactly paint the entire picture, and I’m troubled because I know your numbers are based on this.”
“When we asked staff to put this together, we asked for comparable factors,” Thom responded.
“It’s about checks and balances. We weren’t asking whether the regional district contributed or the tourism board contributed. We were looking at comparable features. What does a VIC with the same variables cost to run. And that’s what we brought to the table. It doesn’t matter where the money came from,” Thom said.
“Well yes, it does,” Fortin replied.
“It’s the taxpayer’s money that would pay for this. It should matter.”
“Of course it matters,” Thom explained.
“We’re all taxpayers here. We’re not talking about this as though it doesn’t affect each of us personally. That’s the beauty of being a councillor in a small town. The decisions that affect the taxpayers affect the councillors too.”
When questioned in a follow-up interview about her response to Thom, Fortin confessed she isn’t entire convinced that the VIC is running efficiently.
“To me it seems like a waste of money to keep funding this VIC the way it’s going.”
Councillor Terry Condon, appearing frustrated by what had begun, after an hour and half, to appear to be a war of semantics between the mayor and some of her colleagues, told Fortin he understood her stance but felt she was beginning to nitpick.
The four-term councillor voted in favour of the deferral during Tuesday’s COTW meeting, but told Fortin and the gallery that in terms of value for dollars spent, he felt the VIC was delivering, however the challenge, he admitted, is demonstrating that to the taxpayers.
Fortin said she would feel more comfortable if the VIC received a shorter contract.
During the public question/comment period, longtime resident Dora Stewart put the discussion into historical perspective.
“I remember having these same discussions in 2009 when the renovations on the primary school were starting,” Stewart told the crowd.
“I remember that some of you sitting at the council table today contributed, financially to campaigns that were aimed at knocking that building down, and now here we are. We are having the same discussions and they don’t really lead to anything. I think people need to rise to the occasion and manage this building. As taxpayers, we contribute. We need to manage this properly. And I think we can do this.”
Chamber president Dave Collins spoke briefly with The View at the conclusion of the discussion. He told The View he hoped to see things move forward and was waiting patiently for council to reach its decision.
“We’re all waiting, not just us, but the arts council [who share the building, along with the Peachland Boys and Girls Club]. We anxiously want to begin our planning and get moving on things.”