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Supporting B.C.’s Growth and Economy: Modernization of Regional Districts

Regional governments play an important role in our communities by delivering regional services where a regional service is appropriate and providing local level governance and service for unincorporated areas within its boundaries. As urban centres grow and municipalities’ residents and businesses increasingly become inter-dependent, the importance of regional services increases, both in terms of type and complexity, e.g. transportation infrastructure, air-quality management, and sewage. However, regional governments can be rendered unable to act without voluntary buy-in from the municipalities. Without effective regional governance and service delivery, businesses experience increased costs - in terms of dollars, time and energy – to operate in more than one municipality and services are duplicated and inefficient or not provided at all.

Background

In 2003, municipal governance was modernized with the Community Charter, which set out principles for municipal-provincial relations and gave municipalities’ direct authority and accountability in regards to governing their respective municipalities.

Regional districts were created in 1966, and were intended to manage issues that transcended municipal borders and to be the local government for the 95 percent of the provincial land area that was outside of municipal boundaries. The Local Government Act describes the Corporate Power to make agreements respecting a wide array of services, regulation and property. In practice, regional districts provide services through authority derived from the Local Government Act, letters patent and - since the late 1980s - through Service Establishment Bylaws.

The purpose of regional districts is three-fold: 
  1. they are regional governments that deliver regional services, 
  2. they are inter-municipal and provide a political and administrative framework for the delivery of services on a partnership basis, and 
  3. they can offer local government services for unincorporated areas.
This policy resolution focusses specifically on the first, regional districts’ ability to effectively and efficiently deliver regional services, particularly in urban settings. Today, there are 154 municipalities in BC, plus 27 regional districts. Since regional districts were implemented, the municipal landscape has changed: the population has dramatically increased and urban areas have expanded. Most regional districts inhabit primarily unincorporated rural areas (electoral areas).

However, some are in urban areas where the municipalities are largely adjacent and things have changed. For example, Greater Victoria area has 13 municipalities (the majority of the Capital Regional District, minus the Gulf Islands) and Metro Vancouver has 21 municipalities.

The Capital Regional District (CRD) and Metro Vancouver have been in the past considered regional district anomalies because of their highly-populated urban areas. In these two districts, the regional governments primarily provide fully regional services like water supply and air quality management. In contrast, less populated regional districts are more focused on providing local services like planning, and fire protection. Both the CRD and Metro Vancouver share regional problems typical of growing urban settings, including transportation, homelessness, water and wastewater management, policing and fire protection, property taxation and land use.

Today, CRD and Metro Vancouver are no longer anomalies. Areas of B.C. are growing and other regional districts are quickly finding themselves in the same/similar predicament as the CRD and Metro Vancouver, including the Regional District of Central Okanagan, Regional District of Nanaimo, Regional District of Fraser-Fort George and North Okanagan Regional District.

The current legislation allows specific municipalities to opt in and out of services and requires any changes to be accepted by all parties. This sets the stage for at best inaction, such as what was seen in the CRD’s 50-year path to sewage treatment, if not conflict, with municipalities acting against regional interests thereby rendering the CRD unable to act. There are also many large and small areas where the regional district model does not meet the needs of taxpayers. For example, Section 375 of the Local Government Act does not specify or provide any information on the scope or type of public consultation during the development of financial plans. As such, it is left up to the regional district how much – or how little – taxpayers are consulted.

The regional district enabling legislation requires modernization to keep our economy strong and to maintain – if not further enhance – the quality of life of which British Columbians are so proud. Although there have been incremental changes to the governing legislation for regional districts over the past 50 years, it is time for a comprehensive review to align regional governance with B.C.’s growing communities.

THE CHAMBER RECOMMENDS

That the Provincial Government modernize regional district-related legislation to achieve the following objectives: 
  1. Clear mandate– regional districts should have sole responsibilities for specific municipal services. 
  2. Transparency - regional districts should be transparent in regards to taxation, ensuring citizens and businesses alike are aware of how much they are paying and for what. 
  3. Governance in the best interest of the majority - regional districts have the authority to act in the best interests of the region and to deliver their mandate.

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