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Kirk LaPointe: Premier's concern over North Shore sewage plant is about $3B too late

Voters are watching, and what North Vancouver and West Van residents really want now is not just an audit, but real help paying the bill
North Shore sewage plant construction 02
Work on the massive new sewage treatment plant construction project in North Vancouver takes place in March of 2021.

George Harvie’s last official act as chair of Metro Vancouver appears to be initiating an independent review of a project his board has overseen with a ballooning budget that has prompted a crisis in public confidence. It’s quite the swan song.

Journalist Murray Kempton described editorial writers as the “guys who come down from the hills after the battle to shoot the wounded." He meant that commentators wait until after main events have unfolded, rather than contribute during critical moments.

Fair enough. Point taken.

While Harvie’s overdue act might fit that description, the same might be said of the premier, who this week applied the pressure in calling for an auditor – maybe even the provincial auditor general – to examine the spending on the North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant and provide a public report.

“If the elected officials at Metro Vancouver can’t ensure taxpayer accountability for expenses being incurred there, obviously the province will have to step in,” David Eby warned.

Sorry, premier, that’s so three billion dollars ago.

If the plant fiasco is the kind of public spending that even a profligate spending government like this one abhors, it is worth asking: Where has it been all this time?

It could have leaned in nearly a year ago when Metro Vancouver administrators were telling North Shore officials that what was originally contracted at $550 million to construct could now cost $3.86 billion to complete.

We’re pretty far down the road now, premier, with a three-decade-long funding formula that will make the North Shore even more unaffordable.

Now that we’re within four months of an election, there is suddenly palpable gravitas, stern warnings and promises to do something if Metro Vancouver does nothing? Too late in the game to make any difference in the score.

Not that anyone in charge has been here to listen in the last week or so.

Harvie, the mayor of Delta, is a lame duck on his way out at month’s end. Meantime, four – count them, four – Metro Vancouver mayors were in The Netherlands last week to learn a thing or two when not attending the Sunday Ice-Breaker Event, the Tuesday Botanical Gardens Beer Tasting, the Wednesday afternoon Excursion or the Thursday Conference Dinner at the 16th Annual International Conference on Urban Drainage. North Shore property owners are going to learn a thing or two about a different kind of drainage when the treatment plant bills hit our bank accounts.

The mayors – Mike Hurley of Burnaby, Brad West of Port Coquitlam, Malcolm Brodie of Richmond and John McEwan of Anmore – were accompanied by three top Metro Vancouver officials, including chief administrative officer Jerry Dobrovolny. His 2023 pay package, disclosed last week, revealed he made more than the premier and prime minister combined, $711,000 in salary and taxable benefits.

Not a good look – nor, for that matter, was a delegation comprising mayors and the people who report to them.

The posse went to Delft, a Dutch town known for its pottery that turns blue when it’s heated. We can relate.

A government source says there are no plans to take the role of Metro Vancouver back to the province, but no one is yet saying no – or, for that matter, yes – to the possibility of directly electing Metro Vancouver leadership instead of having it appointed by municipal councils.

The premier may want Metro Vancouver to be accountable, but unless we elect representatives, there’s little likelihood that happens. As it stands, Metro Vancouver is a side hustle for 41 mayors and councillors who squeeze the regional work into their municipal schedules. The staff runs the show.

Important questions remain about the scope of the review and who conducts it. Harvie’s announcement late Tuesday was designed, it seems, to just get the monkey off his back.

The more urgent question now is whether an election promise might prune the North Shore tax bill for the plant. Property owners will be absorbing an average increase of $590 a year for 30 long years if the province doesn’t step in.

Ideally, a government would have an audit in hand before deciding whether to commit funds to those affected, but Eby (or BC Conservative John Rustad or BC United’s Kevin Falcon) would be unwise to employ that line to hold back help. The $3 billion-plus overrun won’t disappear with any review that tells us the gory details.

The bill is real, as are the seats to be won, or lost, on the North Shore in October, with no local issue this tangibly upon us.

Kirk LaPointe is a West Vancouver columnist with an extensive background in journalism. His column on North Shore issues runs bi-weekly.

Editor's note: This is an updated version of the column that appeared in the June 19 print edition of the North Shore News, containing information released Tuesday after print deadline about Metro Vancouver's call for an independent review of the ballooning costs of the North Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant.