The Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services held a public consultation hearing in Castlegar September 16 concerning the 2016 provincial budget. While all of the slots for speaking to the committee were filled, the general public was noticeably absent and no one took advantage of the open mic opportunity.
The committee is made up of MLAs Wm. Scott Hamilton for Delta North, Carole James for Victoria-Beacon Hill, Dan Ashton for Penticton, Spencer Chandra Herbert for Vancouver-West End, Eric Foster for Vernon-Monashee, Simon Gibson for Abbotsford-Mission, George Heyman for Vancouver-Fairview, Mike Morris for Prince George-Mackenzie, Claire Trevana for North Island and John Yap for Richmond-Steveston.
The committee members feel that the process is productive. “Whether the government listens or not, is up to the government. But certainly from the committee’s perspective I think the reports have been well representing of the issues that have come from the communities,” said Deputy Chair MLA Carole James. “I certainly think it is worthwhile. It raises awareness of issues people may not have heard of.”
Presenters were allowed 10 minutes to make their case, followed by 5 minutes of questions from the committee. Local based presenters included representatives of the Nelson CARES Society, Kootenay Savings Credit Union, Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy, School District 20 and the Castlegar Hospice Society.
Amy Taylor of the Nelson CARES Society talked about the problems of the current income assistance system including the reduction of hours at ministry offices and the reliance on online and call centre services which are often difficult to access. “BC’s income assistance has become increasingly bureaucratic, inefficient and inaccessible,” said Taylor. “It is unable to meet the often urgent needs of people living in cars.”
Kootenay Savings Credit Union President and CEO Brent Tremblay emphasized the work credit unions have done across the province to benefit local communities and the economy. His request was that the current provincial income tax rates for BC Credit unions be maintained and the temporary deferral of tax increases be made permanent.
Presenters from the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy effectively drove home the point that strong literacy skills are essential for all British Columbians. Their request was that the annual literacy coordination funding in the budget be $2.5 million, the minimal amount they feel will enable themselves and similar agencies to do the work they do. This funding covers just the coordination part of literacy work, not the actual program costs.
School District 20 did not originally have a presentation spot, but one opened up and Trustee RoseAnn Brunton was able to speak to the panel about the struggles the district is having with the current funding formulas. “In our last five years, we have had to cut our budget. When we move into our budget cycle, it is not about what we can do to provide for, it is about what we have to take away,” said Brunton. She reported that schools are having to do fundraising and look for external sources of income for needs to be met. She also requested changes to the capital funding, citing that the current amount only allows the district minimal maintenance of buildings and equipment such as boilers, with nothing left over for new projects. This is especially difficult considering the number of aging buildings in the district.
Suzanne Lehbauer spoke on behalf of the Castlegar Hospice Society emphasizing the lack of funding for hospice services in rural BC. Castlegar Hospice currently receives only about ten percent of their budget, about $14,000, through health authority funding and must raise all of the rest. She also presented the society’s project to build a hospice facility in Castlegar, a plan that is supported by surrounding communities. There currently are no hospice facilities east of Vernon until you get to the Alberta border. “British Columbia is always touted as the best place to live. We live until the very moment we die, we would like to see BC be the best place for everyone to die as well,” said Lehbauer.
Carole James thought that the presentations were informative and useful. “People brought their challenges, but they also brought their ideas, they brought their solutions to be able to resolve those challenges,” said James. “The strength of the committee is really that the people that come to speak to the committee are passionate about what they believe in. So regardless of the topic, they only come to present because they really care about something.”
The committee will release its report by November 15.