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Metro Vancouver leaders debate sharing skyrocketing costs of North Shore sewage plant

North Vancouver mayors say North Shore taxpayers should have help from regional neighbours for a project that now comes with a revised, eye-watering price tag of $3.86 billion.

District of North Vancouver Mayor Mike Little has asked that taxpayers from around the Metro Vancouver region share in paying for skyrocketing costs for the new North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant, saying the $2.8 billion increase is too much for North Shore taxpayers to bear by themselves.

Little made the appeal to his Metro colleagues at a special budget workshop Wednesday, arguing that the North Shore was not responsible for the dramatic cost increases for the project and had no control over those. The problem-plagued project now comes with a projected cost of $3.86 billion, a huge increase over the last budget projection of $1.058 billion in 2021.

“We trusted the experts that the project could be delivered,” said Little in the meeting. “We trusted that Metro could contain costs of this project. We were not a part of any delays or changes to the project that would have caused additional cost to the project. We’re just the recipient of the bill without the power to change the project. The impact on our community is very large,” he said.

If no help comes from other communities, North Shore households could be looking at a $1,200 annual utility bill, just for sewage costs, he said.

No guarantees of help from Metro neighbours

So far, however, Metro politicians from around the region have given no guarantees they’ll commit their taxpayers to ponying up extra cash, with some arguing North Shore leaders voted against cost sharing in the past when other communities faced large infrastructure costs.

Both Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart and Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said their communities have had to shoulder large infrastructure bills in the past, in part because North Shore municipalities and the City of Vancouver voted against regional cost sharing 30 years ago.

“This issue hasn’t been fairly addressed historically,” said Stewart.

“If it’s not fair now it wasn’t fair then, and accommodation has to be made as far as I’m concerned,” added Brodie.

Burnaby Coun. Sav Dhaliwal added if Metro communities are being asked to “bail out” the North Shore sewage plant, politicians must think about doing the same for construction on the new Iona sewage treatment plant too.

Other politicians were more sympathetic to the North Shore, with Area A director Jen McCutcheon stressing that the only question politicians need to decide is how to split the ballooning cost increases of the project. North Shore politicians “had no part in this nor did their residents,” she said.

A vote that would have ended discussion on further financial help to the North Shore was defeated, with directors opting to discuss the issue in more detail at a future meeting.

Timing of tax hit also discussed

Other issues discussed Wednesday included whether it would be better to give taxpayers the increased tax hit for the project all at once – resulting in a larger tax hike next year – or spread that out over several years and pay more in borrowing costs.

The budget workshop Wednesday is the first time regional politicians have publicly broached the topic of how Metro will pay for the enormous budget increase on the North Shore’s new sewage treatment plant, which is over $3 billion more than its original cost estimate and 10 years behind schedule.

Under Metro’s existing cost-sharing plan, North Shore taxpayers will face a potential average tax increase of $725 a year, just for the increase to the sewage plant costs, on top of $464 that homeowners already pay towards sewage treatment. Vancouver homeowners would pay $140 more than their current sewage bill of $432 each year, while taxpayers in other parts of the region would pay $70 or $80 more – up from the $300 they currently pay.

If Metro politicians agree to share the bill for the cost increases, average homeowners in all areas would see a $140 increase in their sewage bills.

Those figures don’t include other Metro fees for water treatment, garbage and regional planning, or for municipal taxes.

Politicians also broached the broader idea of changing the way communities pay for sewage treatment and moving to a more regional model of shared costs and expenses.

CAO Jerry Dobrovolny said that would take significant staff time, including assessments of who has paid what in the past as well making projections into the future.

If politicians decide they want to make that change, a new funding model likely couldn’t be put in place before two years, he warned.

City of North Vancouver Mayor Linda Buchanan told the board she is “deeply concerned” that financial information needed by board members to make decisions on “critical” issues isn’t being provided in a timely manner, adding politicians need get that information more than two hours in advance.

Metro board members voted to come back to another workshop to consider more detailed financial information before making decisions on who should pay for what.

In an interview following the meeting Wednesday, Little said he remains optimistic that the door has been left open by the majority of board members to greater sharing of project costs.

One of the large number of deficiencies Metro Vancouver flagged in the original work on the new sewage treatment plant. | Metro Vancouver