SKEENA NDP MLA Robin Austin hopes an announcement from the provincial government to be made here Friday finally demonstrates its paying attention to municipalities straining under the weight of expanding demands from the growing northwestern industrial boom.
Austin, who has tangled recently in the legislature with natural gas and housing minister Rich Coleman over housing pressures as people and companies move in anticipation of the development of a liquefied natural gas industry in the region, says the province is behind in responding.
The announcement, to be made by community, sport and cultural minister Coralee Oakes at Terrace city hall, is expected to confirm the province is sending up interns to help municipalities and to provide details on how $150,000 in planning money is to be spent.
“Northern communities are having real trouble, and companies are having real trouble, processing a bunch of initiatives and they are allocating a number of interns to Terrace and Prince Rupert and Kitimat to help deal with the backlog on the work,” Austin said.
“This announcement recognizes that the cuts to staffing levels in all areas of government have been so brutal over the last 10 years that there are not enough full-time civil servants to do the work.”
Austin says the announcement responds to problems he has been hearing from his constituents for some time.
“It’s good that all the communities are being supported, because I have heard a lot of complaints from communities and from companies that they don’t have the capacity.
“They are completely strapped and overwrought with the amount of work that’s coming in and they were looking to government to say, ‘look part of what we need—yes its housing, yes it’s infrastructure, but it’s also simply bodies to actually administer this work.’”
According to Terrace mayor Dave Pernarowski, the plan will also address the allocation of money promised by Premier Christy Clark last September to local governments in the northwest.
The $150,000 is to go towards “targeted funds to study the impacts that LNG developments have on community water and sewer systems, roads, health, safety and social systems,” according to a ministry release last year.
The money can “be used for a range of activities related to assessing the technical, environmental and/or economic feasibility of municipal infrastructure projects necessary to support LNG development,” the release said.
The announcement comes in the wake of a heated debate between Austin and Coleman in the provincial legislature of which Austin says the housing minister appeared to have woken up to the fact that Terrace and Kitimat can’t wait for the sound of shovels digging on LNG projects for help solving the housing crunch already taking hold.
“I have noticed some movement in Rich Coleman,” said Austin. “About a year ago he was pretty noncommittal. I think now he has heard loudly not just from me but from city councils and he understands now we have a housing crisis long before there is any investment decision on LNG.
“I’ve heard stories of people who are looking for housing here and there is no BC Housing available here so they are moving to Burns Lake,” Austin said.
But now, he said Coleman has started a process to change subsidy levels to match current rental prices, a change which housing advocates in the region have been seeking for some time.
Subsidy hikes announced at the end of April affect all B.C. communities outside Metro Vancouver equally and apply to Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER) and the Rental Assistance Program (RAP).
The total increase is $62.5 million over five years, which works out to $12.5 million a year.
The change raises the rent ceiling in various categories which means the amount of aid money will increase on average for those receiving it, with families seeing an extra $40 per month and seniors $34 per month average, according to a BC Housing release.