A government finance committee heard from local and provincial representatives in Cranbrook on Thursday soliciting feedback for the 2018 BC budget.
Hosted by the Prestige Rocky Mountain Resort, the committee, made up of nine MLAs, heard concerns and proposals for what the government should address in the 2018 provincial budget.
Local organizations included representatives from the College of the Rockies, School District 5 Board of Education and the Columbia Valley Chamber of Commerce, while other organizations phoned in though teleconference such as the Hospital Employees Union and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Chris Johns appeared before the committee on behalf of the School District 5 Board of Education to advocate for local needs and priorities, ranging from capital investments to staffing support.
“Mount Baker Secondary School here in Cranbrook is 66 years old,” Johns told the committee. “It’s the largest secondary school in the East and West Kootenay. It badly needs replacement. We’re spending a lot of money on upgrades to it that continue to band-aid it together and eventually it has to be replaced.
“I appreciate that there are seismic upgrade issues on the coast, but I think our recommendation to the committee is that there has to be a plan in place for the rest of the province.”
Johns also noted the rise in the use of portables for classroom space, especially in the Lower Mainland, however, there are communities in SD5 that are also using them.
“We need a new elementary school in Fernie,” Johns said. “I believe the last count was six portables in place in Fernie Secondary. It’s one of the fastest-growing communities in the province, so portables in Surrey — yes, we get that, portables here in School District 5 also.
Johns also added that the recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling which restored class size and composition to 2002 levels is also impacting school districts across the province and called for predictable, sustainable and yearly funding to enable district staff to fulfill their responsibilities.
Both Dianne Teslak and David Walls, on behalf of the College of the Rockies, also addressed the committee, raising their concerns on student housing.
The College of the Rockies just announced a 14 per cent increase in student enrolment over last year, and Teslak, Vice President, Finance at COTR, said student housing has been a growing issue.
“Certainly our top priority right now, as is the case for many colleges across the province, is student housing,” Teslak said. “As our institutions grow, we start to put more pressure on our affordable housing options in our communities, which then take away those opportunities for other people who need affordable housing options.
“We really need to have a focus on student housing of some sort so we can accommodate a continued growth in our student numbers, both domestic and international.”
COTR has a 97-bed, dorm style student residence that has large waitlists, while Cranbrook has vacancy rate of one per cent for a one-bedroom unit, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
Other priorities COTR wished to bring to the committee include student supports, specifically around mental health, as well as searching for more permanent solutions to one-time funding.
COTR staff suggested that the government change accounting policies towards post secondary institutions that prevent colleges from saving up and accessing cash reserves to invest in capital projects such as student housing.
Susan Clovechok with the Columbia Valley Chamber of Commerce, asked the government to continue with the Rural Dividend Fund, announced by the previous Liberal government, to support initiatives in rural areas of BC.
Clovechok also called for the continuation of the Resort Municipality Initiative, but also for a review of the policy to empower municipalities to develop new tourism destinations in a way that is meaningful and sustainable.
She also brought up public transportation, citing the decision by Greyhound to close down routes in the Columbia Valley and how it impacts seniors who may need to travel for medical reasons.
“We do not have any service on weekends and until just this August, no reasonable transportation into Calgary where many specialist medical appointments take place,” she said.
However, that service operates Wednesdays and Thursdays every other week to allow for overnight stays, but available funds means the service will only operate until February.
Clovechok also spoke on mobilizing investment capital for rural businesses and projects and also brought up the need for the province to have plan for regulating short-term rentals such as Airbnb.
Other presentations included the BC Hospital Employees Union, which spoke about the need for ending Public Private Partnerships (P3s) and advocated for additional support for seniors and long-term care facilities. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives also brought their ideas to the table, including $10-a-day daycare, implementing a poverty reduction plan and providing more financial resources for health care and education.