Budget Estimates 2021: Municipal Affairs

May 18, 2021 | 42-1, Blog, Estimates, Governance | 0 comments

With 30 minutes available to the BC Green Caucus for Budget Estimates in Municipal Affairs I had a limited opportunity to canvass a variety of topic.

To that end, in this session I asked Minister Josie Osborne about her decision to unilaterally cut the $8.4 million Climate Action Revenue Incentive Program. This program was a revenue neutral initiative where eligible local governments received a grant for 100% of the carbon tax paid. As it stands it appears the provincial government will still collect the money from local governments, however the grant is no longer available to local governments to invest back into climate action projects.


Transcript


A. Olsen: It is wonderful to be joining the minister in the estimates today. I’d like to, before I ask any questions, just congratulate you on your appointment as the Minister of Municipal Affairs. We’ve spent many years together at the Union of B.C. Municipalities — maybe too many years to count — so it’s really nice to meet with you again here in this institution.

I do want to follow up on some questions from the member for Penticton around the climate action revenue incentive program. I did have the estimates debate on throughout the day, so I’m going to try not to cover ground. But I’d like to ask a few questions in areas that I think the member didn’t ask, to try to get a better understanding of just the direction your ministry and the government overall is going.

First question that I’d ask is…. The minister has mentioned several times that the minister and the ministry are working with and listening to local governments. I’m just wondering. Did any local governments approach the ministry and suggest that this CARIP program needed to be changed and that the provincial government needed to go in a different direction?

Hon. J. Osborne: Welcome to the member for Saanich North and the Islands. It’s good to see him as well, and I concur. We have spent many years together at the local government level and conventions and meetings and such. I know we share not only a passion for local governments, but we share a passion for climate action. I’m not surprised to have this question. I look forward to talking about it more if he wishes to do so.

I also know that the member understands well, with the kind of conversation and dialogue that’s taking place constantly between myself and my predecessors — with my staff, with local government leaders through venues like UBCM, like the Green Communities Committee and other tables that local government and provincial officials sit at — the design of programs for incentivizing, for helping and for supporting local governments in climate action are a constant subject of conversation.

[5:35 p.m.]
Yes, we’ve had quite a bit of feedback over the months, and then, of course, my predecessors for the months and years before me.

CARIP being a ten-year program, the intersection of all the feedback that we have gotten…. We are listening to communities that are both large and small, so understanding, in particular, that some communities face challenges that others do not, be it absolute amounts of dollars but also in their capacity and ability to conduct the work that they want to do.

That has led us to the decision that we’ve taken. Now it’s up to all of us, with the road ahead, to listen. Again, I do say that a lot, but it’s true, because it’s important to hear what local governments need, what kind of capacity and funding supports they do need and also how we can support them in working together. It’s not just 190 local governments and 203, at least, First Nations communities across British Columbia that are tackling this independently, but the fact that we’re doing it all together.

As I said earlier today to the member for Penticton, this is not just an all-government approach. It is all of governments approach, and in fact, it really is a societal approach. So I’ve probably gone on far longer than I really needed to, but I do love talking about this topic, so thank you very much.

A. Olsen: The minister will have a few more minutes yet to be able to speak to this topic.

The minister has mentioned a couple of times that this program has been in place for ten years. I don’t think that there is an expiry date on programs. I think that sometimes programs might cease to be useful, or they need to be changed or amended, or they get replaced. That’s not actually what’s happening here. What’s happened here is the provincial government has decided to discontinue a project.

Now, there has been a lot of contextualizing around this, suggesting that there is going to be another program to come in and replace it, but that wasn’t announced. So just because the program has been in place for ten years, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t useful or serving a useful purpose for government. We see $8.4 million worth of benefits that are going to local governments for committing to taking climate action.

I guess my expectation would be that if the government was going to get rid of this program at a time in which we’re now facing the climate crisis — and it’s a growing crisis — the minister would also then have a program that’s there to replace it. I think that it was serving a useful purpose.

Another one of the rationalizations for getting rid of this program was that it appears that this wasn’t serving large and small communities. But again, I don’t know that any of this actually was justification for just getting rid of the program. It is justification for amending it, changing it or replacing it. All we see here right now is the minister has announced that one year from now, that program is going to end.

I’m just not sure. Why was it necessary to cut this program now without having a replacement, and all the work that she’s committed to doing, with listening to and working with municipalities, to also, at the same time, announce a replacement of this program?

[5:40 p.m.]
Hon. J. Osborne: I do realize that the decision to wind down the CERIP program has obviously generated a lot of attention, and I, in some ways, actually seize that as an opportunity, because it’s getting us to the table to have these questions. Whether it comes up in question period today or in estimates as it is right now, I’ve had questions from members of both opposition parties, and to me, that actually is a very positive thing in the sense that we are all committed to this and that this is not a partisan issue about climate change. We accept that it is real, that it is happening and that we have to do everything we can to tackle it.

That includes, obviously, for me, in my role as the Minister of Municipal Affairs, working with and supporting local governments. I know that the member for Saanich North and the Islands does understand that CERIP was one of many, many different programs and ways that this government and previous governments have supported local governments and that that support will not stop. It doesn’t end here because the decision has been taken to transition and to renew the way that we are supporting local governments — and yes, including communities of different sizes and the different capacities that they have.

What I take from this, too, is an opportunity to invite the member and to say, “Please continue to give me and others your good ideas,” because I know just how passionate, dedicated and committed the member is to this topic. Again, I really look forward to working not only with him but with members of the official opposition and with the local governments themselves, obviously, in the best ways to move forward.

A. Olsen: I think what I find so challenging with the framing of the minister’s offering around this decision is that this is just one program of many, many programs that municipalities are partnered with in the municipality or with the province, and that’s true. But this is a program that doesn’t exist anymore after next year. Those other programs continue to exist. So this is actually a cut to a climate action program that was designed to incent municipalities to take on the important work at that local government level. I remember the days when these conversations were just starting.

So the minister is attempting, I think, to say: “This is just one of many programs, and we’re going to continue those programs.” But it’s this program that we’re talking about, not the other ones, and you’ve cut this program. It’s $8.4 million that municipalities use to improve their greenhouse gas emissions. So that program doesn’t exist anymore, and there’s no plan in place. It seems like in the next year we’re going to be working — or the ministry is going to be working — to develop that plan. Another aspect of this program which I think is really important is that it had a data collection aspect to it. The member for Penticton raised that.

[5:45 p.m.]
Maybe two questions in one here. First of all, does the minister know how many of the greenhouse gas emissions were reported by municipalities in the last reporting year? And in conjunction with that, is there any mechanism, going forward, for municipalities to report their greenhouse gas — the data that the provincial government was collecting previously?

Hon. J. Osborne: With respect to the sum total of greenhouse gas emissions that have been reported, I don’t have that information at my fingertips here. I’d be happy to get back to the member with that information, with those data.

With respect to the reporting of greenhouse gas emissions, of course, signing onto the climate action charter meant that municipalities and regional districts were making the commitment to track and to record, publicly report their greenhouse gas emissions. That ability remains, to do so. It always has been voluntary. I know that local governments understand how important it is to have those data. I expect that many, if not all, will continue to do that.

As I mentioned before, we’ll be working with our colleagues at other ministries, primarily the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, to work with local governments, to continue to receive their data.

A. Olsen: In the defence of cutting this program, the minister, again, has used several reasons to justify the decision to cut this program. Of those reasons, I’ve yet to find out what it is about this program that the minister and the government found so undesirable. What was it that actually called for this program to just be scrapped, and not something that could be amended or used as a foundation to improve upon? What was so wrong with this, that it just needed to be cut the way it was, with no consultation, with very little notice, and leaving many of our local government colleagues kind of holding the bag on it?

This is reminiscent of municipalities who are looking for stable, reliable, secure funding on an ongoing basis for decades. This sounds to me like a very top-down decision that was made.

I’d really like to understand, other than the program being old, what it was about the program that made it so ineffective or undesirable?

[5:50 p.m.]
Hon. J. Osborne: Thank you, again, to the member opposite for this question and continuing to talk about the importance of climate change.

I think that the member opposite understands from his time in local government as well as his time in the provincial government that it is always good to be looking at programs, to be evaluating them and to be asking the question: is this still achieving what we set out to do? In the case of CARIP, CARIP was designed to incent local governments to sign on to the climate action charter, a voluntary charter in which they would commit to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, to publicly reporting their progress on that and tracking their greenhouse gas emissions. To the member, I would say that CARIP has achieved what it set out to do.

However, as we look at the program now and we ask ourselves, “What can we do differently?” and, “How can we do this better?” it is a good time to ask that question. I think that in the case of the diversity of local governments and communities across B.C., we can understand that not everybody is going to be able to achieve what they want to be able to do just with their CARIP dollars and, of course, I don’t think that we ever expected that, no matter how big or small or the municipality.

[5:55 p.m.]
But, for example, the Islands Trust received $922 in 2020 for their 2019 greenhouse gas emissions reporting and what was owed to them. A municipality like White Rock is receiving just over $22,000. As I have mentioned before, municipalities like the district of Ucluelet are receiving just over $2,300. I think that it is very important that we look at these things and we ask ourselves how to design programs that work better.

I think it is very important that we look at these things and we ask ourselves how to design programs that work better. Change is not necessarily a bad thing, although it is sudden. I understand what the member has been saying and what I have heard. That is why we have got a year ahead of us to be able to, again, consult, listen and learn from local governments about better ways to be able to support them in their diversity of capacity and in their diversity of ambition.

A. Olsen: Thank you, Minister, for the response. I guess I just fundamentally disagree with the approach here, frankly. We do have a year ahead. Anybody who has been in local government knows that we work in multi-year cycles and that there’s planning. Most municipal governments, in their administration, know well enough to not plan 100 percent on federal and provincial government funding because stuff exactly like this happens.

It makes it very, very difficult at the local government level, and they’re going to be very happy with what they get. Of course, you’re not going to hear too many complaints about these kinds of actions, because they’re hoping that another program gets developed. I just fundamentally disagree with this approach that you would cancel a program, using justifications like: “It’s too old.”

I didn’t hear the minister highlight the several municipalities that obviously got much more than $700 or $2,300. Those are easy numbers to pull out and highlight how ineffective the current program was. That doesn’t mean it’s worthy of scrapping. It just means that we work together to make the changes that are needed in order to be able to provide increased incentives. I just don’t think that climate change is something where we should be stopping the incentives for people to do…. There are so many priorities in front of local government, as the minister knows. This is not the area to be removing incentives.

A. Olsen: I’m just going to be bring up, in the last question that I have here, a commitment that I believe was made by the government in the last campaign, around property-assessed clean energy. In the first few questions, I have highlighted where there’s public money to incent the decision-making at the local government level.

The property-assessed clean energy program is an issue that I’ve been raising with this minister’s predecessors for the last 3½ or four years. It has been now committed to, in the budget this year, that we’re going to continue working on it. In the same year that we’re cutting $8½ million worth of benefits from municipal governments to be making good decisions on climate action, we’re not putting in place the tools that allow for private investments to be made as well — which, as we well know, the property-assessed clean energy program could be providing.

Does the minister see an opportunity, in an expedited way — more than next budget but sooner than that — that we could start to see some legislation in place, some regulations around creating a program that would allow for the property-assessed clean energy program to also be contributing to our greenhouse gas emission reductions and goals?

[6:00 p.m.]

Hon. J. Osborne: Thank you for the question on the property assessment clean energy program that is absolutely part of my mandate letter, as it is of several other ministries. And because it is referenced in the mandate letters of several ministers, obviously that interministry cooperation is a significant part of that work, and this involves the Minister of Finance as well.

The lead ministry for this project is the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation. And in addition, with the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and his staff there, those two ministries have undertaken an external contract to examine the PACE program and its fit within the B.C. system of local government. My ministry, and myself, of course, welcome the opportunity to review this study, and we will continue to work cooperatively with our colleagues, both at the staff level and the minister level, of course.

I do want to say, also, as part of my ministry and its mandate and things that we need to take a considered and thoughtful careful approach to, that includes maintaining local government financial sustainability. So, of course, under the Community Charter, a critical purpose of local governments is to steward public assets well. So, again, this is work that does require that considered, thoughtful approach, and I’m looking forward to making progress on this.

The Chair: I’ll just ask the member for Saanich North and the Islands if he has any more questions.

A. Olsen: Yeah. I’ll continue just for a couple more minutes here, if my colleague from Penticton allows it.

D. Ashton: Yep.

A. Olsen: Excellent.

I just want to follow up on that, and I appreciate the information. I think there are many of our constituents across the province that are certainly looking at this as an opportunity to be able to make improvements to their own property. I guess I’d just like to leave it with the minister that when we’re taking a look at the fiscal relationship in this program, it’s not all public money. In fact, there are many programs across North America that include private money as investments that can be made into programs such as this.

And so in terms of the early work that’s being done on this, has the minister considered, and has the, I guess, handful of ministries — there are three ministries or four ministries that have been highlighted here –– considered including the ability for private investment money to be involved in this as well to offset so that it’s not entirely just on the public purse, but that private investors could see this as an opportunity, a good-quality investment?

[6:05 p.m.]

Hon. J. Osborne: Thank you for the question. I think the member makes a very good point, and I want to assure him that no options are off the table. In fact, this is an intriguing one. I would really welcome any more information or ideas like this that he has to share, and thank you for the question.

A. Olsen: Thank you, Mr. Chair, and just a note that I’m going to be turning it back over to my colleague from Penticton after this statement.

I just want to thank the minister for the responses to these questions. I would just say that I believe that the minister’s ministry has the information about PACE. I believe we’ve shared it with them over the last number of years. It’s been a program that I’ve been quite interested in. I think that it could very well help people with not only investments but, as well, improving the quality of our buildings to also improve the outcomes of greenhouse gas emissions for our colleagues in local governments. I’ll leave it at that.

Thank you to the minister, and thank you to my colleague from Penticton for providing this opportunity for me to ask these questions. HÍSW̱ḴE SIÁM.

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