The site was chosen, the designs drawn up and a $16-million loan approved by voters but just as Port Moody seemed poised to finally begin building its new No. 1 fire hall, city council has scrapped the plans and gone back to the drawing board.
Citing an embarrassingly low 9.2% voter turnout at the April 16 public referendum on whether to borrow up to $16 million from the province to build the much-needed replacement fire hall, city council voted Tuesday to defeat the motion to borrow the money and explore other options for the hall's funding, location and design.
Port Moody voters approved the loan in the referendum with 58% voting in favour of borrowing the money and 42% voting against. But that referendum drew only 1,980 of the city's 21,551 eligible voters, meaning the decision to hike property taxes by 3% and potentially saddle the city with fire hall debt until 2042 was approved by a margin of just 304 Moody residents.
That, most councillors agreed, was unacceptable, and so a bylaw allowing council to borrow the fire hall funding was defeated at the eleventh hour.
"I don't feel comfortable spending $16 million with so little support," Coun. Meghan Lahti said at Tuesday's council meeting before voting against the loan and suggesting the city revisit the issue during the November municipal election. "I was opposed to the location, the funding mechanism, the date of the referendum... there was one thing I did agree to, which was that the fire hall be replaced."
The new fire hall was slated to be built on the site of the current 37-year-old hall at Murray Street and Ioco Road.
Lahti was joined in defeating the bylaw to borrow the fire hall funding by councillors Gerry Nuttall and Karen Rockwell as well as Mayor Joe Trasolini in a 4-2 vote (Coun. Diana Dilworth, who's running in the federal election, was absent). Councillors Mike Clay and Bob Elliott voted in favour of proceeding with the loan.
In response to public input at the council meeting from at least one resident who claimed she and her neighbours were unaware the city was holding a referendum on the fire hall loan until just days before the vote, councillors Clay and Elliott questioned the possibility residents weren't adequately informed before the vote.
"There isn't a taxpayer in this city who didn't know this vote was happening," Coun. Elliott said. "The 9% turnout is an embarrassment... but the people who voted, voted and I won't take that away from them."
Clay agreed, adding that the arguments from some members of council and the public that the current fire hall land could be sold as a site for housing to raise money to build the new hall on cheaper, less desirable land, are false. Clay said the city is having a hard enough time getting clearance to build a fire hall on the current site due to problems with the soil, let alone a residential complex.
A new bylaw for the fire hall cannot be presented to a council vote now until October 26, when six months have passed since the bylaw's defeat.
A new referendum on borrowing funding for the new fire hall plans would be highly unlikely, as it would only be necessary if the city wanted to borrow more than the $16 million already approved by residents.
"It's really disappointing, Your Honour, that this council would let this go that far and then not support it," Clay told Mayor Trasolini.
In the meantime, Trasolini said the city would explore other options to reduce the borrowing costs for the No. 1 fire hall, including soliciting new designs, a new building location and a new funding structure that would rely less on property tax hikes.