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B.C. Politicians Must Be Vigilant On Sewage Bottom Line

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Why is flushing money down the toilet the thing the Capital Regional District board seems to be best at?

And how can the municipal politicians and officials charged with building a sewage treatment centre be so oblivious to things that don't pass the smell test? (No pun intended.)

Earlier this month, the CRD board approved a plan to pay the chair and vice-chair of the board responsible for the new sewage treatment plant $20,000 each, per month, through March. That's on top of a $30,000 annual retainer for chairwoman Jane Bird, and a $16,000 annual retainer for vice-chairman Don Fairbairn.

The CRD board should know that giving big payouts on this project is controversial. Seaterra, the original attempt at a Greater Victoria sewage treatment centre, was a financial debacle, capped off by $600,000 in severance payments for four Seaterra staffers. That came after it was revealed Albert Sweetnam, the project manager, was the highest paid regional staffer in 2014, collecting $297,466.

Nice return for a group that didn't even break ground on a new plant.

The CRD board should know that giving big payouts on this project is controversial.

To their credit, it looks like Saanich representatives tried to stop this new set of $20,000 payments -- or at least slow them down. the Times Colonist reports that Mayor Richard Atwell, along with councillors Colin Plant and Vic Derman, asked for the vote to be delayed so the board could get more information on what had been spent so far, and if there was any room to save money in that process.

"I have no way of saying that I'm getting value for the taxpayers, and I should be able to do that," Derman said.

"This is about how we do business here," added Atwell. "How we spend money and how we account for money."

The Saanich request was an entirely reasonable one, but the rest of the board, led by free-spending Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, rubberstamped the pay raise.

Later, Saanich's concerns were reinforced by a radio interview with board chairwoman Bird about the extra pay. Bird was asked by CFAX 1070's Pamela McCall about how much the pay raise would cost taxpayers. A long pause ensued.

"Just doing the arithmetic right now... $160,000, something like that, on [the total project cost of] $765 million," Bird said, noting the monthly payment runs November to March.

Actually, five months at $40,000 per month is $200,000. And many taxpayers would likely prefer the chairwoman know the arithmetic ahead of time; it certainly lends credence to Saanich's point that the full financial picture is still murky.

In the interview, Bird insinuated that the payout is insignificant in the course of a $765-million project. But it's inattention to details that gets these big projects into trouble.

paying bill
(Photo: Tetra Images)

What's a couple hundred grand in all this? Well, it's the sewage tax paid by 961 average Saanich households this year. Think of that: nearly a thousand homes will scrimp and sacrifice to pay their sewage bill this year, only to watch that money flow into two people's pockets. Is that really insignificant?

The decision also sends a disturbing message that the CRD board is uninterested in scrutinizing and grinding down costs on this megaproject. Why won't they sweat the small stuff?

Of all people, Helps should know that. She's seen the Blue Bridge project drag on for years and go massively over budget. She even called for real-time financial information to help council better manage it.

But when Saanich asked for similar clarity before approving these pay hikes, she shot them down.

There's an old saying that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Let's hope, for taxpayers' sake, that the adage is wrong in this case.

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