• Thursday , 1 December 2022

Protective Services Building Referendum

The existing fire hall is very small; each of the trucks had to be custom designed to fit inside and there is little room for one or two people to move around let alone a group of firefighters with equipment. Photo Joanne Layh

Joanne Layh

When residents vote in the 2022 general election on Saturday, in addition to voting for a mayor, councillors and a school trustee, they’ll also be presented with a referendum question that will appear as follows:

“Are you in favour of The Corporation of the District of Peachland adopting the Protective Services Building Loan Authorization Bylaw No. 2364, 2022, to authorize the borrowing of up to Seventeen Million, Five Hundred Thousand Dollars ($17,500,000), over a thirty (30) year term, to fund the construction of a new Protective Services Building to accommodate the fire department?”

Back in June Peachland council unanimously gave third reading to a bylaw that would allow the town to borrow up to $17.5 million for a protective services building to house the fire department, Peachland Community Policing, and possibly the local BC ambulance service, as well. The building could also include a small office for the RCMP.

Third reading of the bylaw paved the way for the referendum, which will take place in conjunction with the municipal election on Oct. 15, when taxpayers will decide whether or not to allow the town to proceed with borrowing.

Holding the referendum in conjunction with the general election saves Peachland about $25,000, according to CAO Joe Creron. 

Why does Peachland need a new fire hall?

Currently the fire department is located on 3rd St but the plan is to construct a new building on a lot the district owns at San Clemente Ave and 13th St.

The municipality says improved community safety is the number one reason for relocating the fire department to a larger, more centralized location.

Relocating next to the highway would improve emergency response times as currently paid-on-call firefighters must travel through traffic-calmed Beach Ave to get to the fire hall and once they’ve found a parking spot, fire trucks must also leave through Beach Ave, where the speed limit is just 30 km/h. 

The fire department’s current building, Station 21, is about 60 years old and was never designed to be a fire hall. Originally it housed the public works department and later morphed into a fire station. There are building code and work safe violations in the hall and bringing it up to code just isn’t possible, says Peachland fire chief Dennis Craig.

The hall is extremely small and there is no way to fit an aerial ladder inside, which will be a requirement sometime down the road.

It also lacks a decontamination area so after a structure fire paid on call firefighters and their families are exposed to carcinogens due to cross contamination in their vehicles and homes, said Craig.

He estimates the advantages of the new location would improve response times by two to three minutes.

“I’ve been in the industry for 22 years. I’ve been sitting in this role for the last nine. In this last year, I have seen significant changes in our fire season. Since 2017 I’ve noticed significant changes in our fire behaviour. Our fire seasons are going longer. Our fire seasons are changing. Our fire behaviour is changing and minutes count. Response times make a big difference. Getting out of the fire hall two minutes faster can mean the difference of holding a fire and losing a fire,” said Craig. “Fire doubles in size every minute inside a home – if it’s your home, two minutes makes a real big difference in the event of a fire.”

What will this cost taxpayers?

A new building for the fire department is estimated to cost about $20 million, although a significant percentage of that cost is contingency.

The town is looking to borrow up to $17.5 million, which will have a maximum parcel tax impact of $125 per household per year.  

Director of finance Garry Filafilo has said the parcel tax for the building would be phased in. He also says that the town could look at selling assets they don’t need to help with the cost.

At the first open house event held earlier this summer, the information presented to the public at that time was that the maximum estimated cost per household would be $401 annually, which would be a net increase of about $200 after some existing parcel taxes expire next year.

However, since then some rejigging has taken place and in September council passed a resolution to ensure the new parcel tax will be not more than $125 per household per year above the current parcel taxes.

The parcel tax is expected to remain in place for 30 years, at an assumed rate of 4.3 per cent. That estimate is based on the current number of properties within the district so costs will decrease with an increase of households and development.

This week the town’s CAO, fire chief, and director of finance sat down with the View to help ensure residents have the facts they need to make an informed decision about the referendum.

“It’s not going to be more than $125 per household per year above the current parcel taxes,” Creron said at the outset. “That’s the worst case. I want to see if we can get that lower.”

Initially, the cost of the project had a contingency built in but it wasn’t detailed enough and a lot of questions came up from the public; since then the municipality has gone to Altus for a full Class D project scope and now there are contingencies built into each separate line.

“There’s a separate contingency for design, there’s a separate contingency for construction, and so forth, so it’s not one big flat contingency anymore,” said Craig

The Altus group was contracted to provide a high-level Class D cost estimate based on two concepts. 

Earlier this year council appointed a Community Fire Hall Select Committee (ASC), which fully supported both building options, however, priority was given to Option 2 (a two-story multi-use facility) with Option 1 (a single-story building) to be used as a fall-back option.

The ASC, which was mandated to provide council with recommendations regarding the provision of a new fire hall and associated fire protection services, concluded that Peachland Fire Rescue Services (PFRS) does require a relocated and modern fire hall to meet functional safety and operational requirements.

“It hasn’t just been staff doing it or an outside consultant doing it. We also had a group of residents look at it as well,” said Craig. 

That group of residents included a retired fire chief, a retired engineer, a retired architect, a current account, career firefighters, as well as residents from other walks of life.

The municipality is hoping to proceed with the two-storey option, which carries a cost estimate of $15.7 million for the construction and on top of that there are total project soft costs for items such as a cul de sac, servicing of the site, and a small land acquisition, for a total of just over $19 million. 

“It’s hard comparing apples to apples when looking at other communities,” said Craig. “We’ve given a total project cost.”

“2024 is our current goal, but if we see us going into a recession and by holding off for another year we can save more money, we will do whatever we have to do to bring it in to an affordable amount of money for our community,” said Creron. “Inflation is starting to go through the roof. Some people in our community are struggling so we’ve got to get this down as low as we possibly can without compromising the scope of the project.”

Several open houses and a virtual town hall were held to provide residents an opportunity to gather information or ask questions. As well, the fire chief has had an information booth set up at various events over the past months to make himself available to residents. 

Those who missed the open house and virtual town hall events can view the information package at peachland.ca/firehall.

What happens if the referendum fails?

“Our response times are a challenge. Getting members to the fire hall is a challenge. Parking downtown is a challenge for our members. So if it doesn’t go ahead, we’re still left with a lot of those challenges,” said Craig. “The building is not renovatable. Putting any money into the building to try to renovate it only buys us a very finite amount of time and none of that money is recoverable.”

There is no way to bring the building up to code without tearing it down, said Craig.

“In order to bring it up to code, we’d have to build a satellite fire hall somewhere, because we’d actually have to evict trucks out of the hall to create the exits and corridors inside the fire hall to meet code,” said Craig. “Fire underwriters are aware of where we’re at and our response times and our manpower but as the community grows and our call volume grows, as West Kelowna grows, we have access to their aerial ladder truck now, but down the road that’s going to change.”

Down the road, Peachland will need to purchase a ladder truck at some point in time and there is no physical possible way to put that in the existing fire hall, said Craig.

“It is inevitable that we are going to have to replace the fire hall and costs just continue to go up,” said Craig. “If we don’t do it now, it is going to be more expensive.”

Craig pointed to Lake Country, who went with a $6 million project in a failed referendum in 2008. When they passed the referendum in 2018, it was a $9.1 million project.

“That’s the boat we’re going to be in. It’s inevitable that we have to build a new fire hall from a fire underwriters’ perspective. We are okay now, but West Kelowna is getting busier, we’re getting busier, we’re growing, they’re growing, and at some point in time fire underwriters is not going to give us credit for their ladder truck and they’re going to say, ‘You must have one.’”

Peachland has been making reserve fund contributions for a ladder truck for the last 11 years so when the time comes to age out one of the existing trucks the funds should be there to replace it, assuming subsequent councils continue to contribute to reserves.

What happens if the referendum succeeds?

If the referendum is approved, the municipality will have the ability to borrow up to $17.5 million for the construction of a protective services building.

However, the next council will still retain the ability to scale back or put a stop to the project if they choose. The next council will also have numerous decisions to make about the project that are still undetermined, including the size of the building, the organizations that will occupy the building, and the form and character of the building.

“The referendum isn’t approving the form and character of the fire hall. The referendum isn’t approving exactly what the fire hall is going to look like. The referendum is does the public support the borrowing of up to $17.5 million for the fire hall,” said Craig. “If the referendum is successful, then we start getting into those more detailed drawings.”

Craig also noted if the referendum is successful, it doesn’t mean the project is a go right off the bat. It still needs to be added to the budget, and council will still need to approve the form and character of the building.

“Once the referendum is approved – if it is approved – we’ll look at all different kinds of ways that we might be able to save more money,” said Creron. 

There will still be numerous opportunities ahead for public consultation, Craig emphasized.

“We are going to be subject to all the same public hearings and open houses that a developer would be. Because we have to rezone the land, we’re going to have to do all the same steps of the public engagement portion that any developer would have to do,” said Craig. “Just because the referendum is successful doesn’t mean the project is green lighted.”

The next council will also need to decide whether or not to include BC Ambulance in the building.

“They are going to pay their full share, period. We are not subsidizing BC Ambulance, period,” said Creron.

“They are the ones that approached us to be a part of the building,” said Craig. “But because we don’t have the true form and character nailed down and we don’t know if the public is going to support the borrowing, we haven’t gotten into the details of talking contract negotiations with them.”

Creron said he will explore possibilities to develop a partnership that will result in a lower cost.

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