Ask anyone n the real estate business and they’ll come back with three words that are key to their industry: location, location, location.
That’s very much the same with the rural community of Thornhill which is now examining its future and how it will be governed.
Consider what would be the case if Thornhill was located at Lakelse Lake or even 10km east on Hwy16 from where it is now.
The community would have been incorporated as a stand alone municipality long ago.
Nobody, provincial government included, would be seriously considering annexing the community to Terrace.
At some distance from Terrace, Thornhill would have retail stores selling everything from groceries to pillow cases. It would have law and accounting offices, medical and dental clinics, hair salons and sports shops.
In short, Thornhill would have commercial and service establishments, and with that a non-residential tax base, typically found in any community with a population of 4,000.
Would Thornhill be a viable community?
British Columbia has 78 municipalities with populations under 4,000. The residential share of their taxable assessment varies significantly.
There are some rich ones, but in some, the Village of Montrose for example (population 1,012), residential properties make up 98.72 per cent of the municipality’s taxable assessment.
Thornhill’s 73.95 per cent is quite respectable by comparison. Thornhill would not be a rich municipality, but it would not be a pauper either.
Thornhill’s current proximity affects Terrace, too.
Terrace businesses derive substantial benefits from having a few thousand customers on their doorsteps without having to contribute to their community’s local services.
Residential property owners in Terrace would have to ante up to operate the arena and pool without the contributions paid by Thornhill and Area “C” of the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine.
Recreation facilities Thornhill could afford, however, if it were located on the shores of Lakelse Lake or east on the highway would be a far cry from what is available to the community in Terrace.
Residents of both communities, therefore, benefit from their proximity to each other.
When the prospect of the two communities merging was discussed in detail in 1997, a study focused on services and their cost.
It offered the two communities a choice between the status quo and, from Thornhill’s perspective, two undesirable alternatives.
The reality of their proximity should inspire Terrace and Thornhill to focus on opportunities.
The focus of any new study on Thornhill’s future should be on governance, exploring the feasibility of further opportunities to cooperate open to the two communities because of their proximity.
The 1997 study referred to the “preservation of community character” as an issue of perception.
It did not look beyond conventional local government structures.
The study did not consider innovative solutions that may achieve the purposes of municipal government as set out in the Community Charter, the provincial legislation which sets out how local governments are to be managed.
These purposes include:
(a) providing for good government of its community,
(b) providing for services, laws and other matters for community benefit,
(c) providing for stewardship of the public assets of its community, and
(d) fostering the economic, social and environmental well-being of its community.
The 150 area residents who attended a public meeting back then identified 15 issues of concern.
They were unanimous in ranking: taxation impact, fair representation, preservation of lifestyle, and adequate representation as the community’s four leading issues.
Three of these issues fall within the Community Charter purposes of good government, stewardship, and fostering the community’s well-being.
They speak to the “preservation of community character.”
Good government, stewardship, and fostering well-being are not privileges reserved for the wealthy.
These qualities are the foundation of a stable community. When we reflect on which decisions concerned with good government, stewardship, and fostering well-being entail, we find that how decisions are made is of greater import than the identity of those decision-makers.
Governance, how governments make their decisions, is what distinguishes a democracy from all other forms of government.
Giving priority to the question of governance does not trivialize questions concerned with costs and affordability.
To the contrary, how decisions are made addresses the quality and priority of services provided as much as it does their cost and affordability.
Incorporating Thornhill would not reduce property taxes in Thornhill.
Neither would retaining the status quo shield the community from future tax increases.
Incorporation would address fair representation and voting rights.
Incorporation would empower Thornhill to strike a balance between the cost and affordability of services on one hand, and their priority and quality standards on the other.
Sharing services offers distinct advantages to Thornhill and to Terrace. How shared services could be governed is what needs to be explored.
More than 40 years ago the regional district adopted Specified Area Establishment Bylaw No. 27. The specified area includes the City of Terrace and regional district areas “C” and “E” (Thornhill).
It was created “for the purpose of sharing in the net operational cost of the Terrace Arena and Swimming Pool complex and associated recreational programs.”
At the time these costs were allocated on the basis of population.
In 1979 the Regional District adopted Bylaw No. 115 to change the cost-sharing methodology.
The objective was to share the cost of the pool and the arena on the basis of “an equal (tax) rate” applied to all properties within the specified area.
The bylaw acknowledged that while rural area residents contribute to the cost of operating the facilities, “the specified area has no representation” on the city’s recreation committee.
In other words, Thornhill and Area “C” contribute, but Terrace alone decides how the pool and arena are to be run.
Bylaw No. 115 sought to correct this inequity by appointing Electoral Area “C” and “E” Directors “to sit on the [City] of Terrace’s Recreation Committee that is responsible for the policy, management, and budget decisions” in respect to the two facilities and their associated programs.
Today the financial contributions paid by Thornhill and Area “C” still comply with the provisions set out in Bylaw No. 115.
The committee provision, however, was abandoned years ago.
Over the years the regional district area directors’ involvement in decisions relating to the arena, the pool, and programs associated with these facilities has been reduced to attending an annual budget meeting.
This involvement falls far short of the bylaw’s stipulation that the area directors be involved in policy, management, and budget decisions affecting the arena, the pool, and their associated programs.
The bylaw’s governance principles have been seriously diluted.
The committee was not abandoned due to ill will on the part of the city or negligence on the part of the regional district.
The problem lies in the differences that distinguish a regional district from a municipality.
A new study, (the province has already promised money for a study on governance) should recognize these differences and explore which alternative governance models may possibly advance the Community Charter’s municipal government purposes in the area without the existing communities having to abandon their identity.
The terms of reference for the new study should direct it to explore innovative governance models to encourage Thornhill, Terrace, and Area “C” to maximize effectiveness and efficiencies through cooperation in the provision of services, while at the same time allowing each community to pursue policies aimed at preserving their individual and unique characters.
Andre Carrel counts nearly 20 years experience of working for small municipalities in the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and B.C. in addition to running his own consulting business and sitting on various local government associations.
Now retired and living in Terrace, B.C., Carrel retains a keen interest in how governments work and should work.