Cannibalizing yourself lacks foresight

"In municipal operations, you usually can't fund operations by selling assets, by cannibalizing yourself. When organizations in the private or public sector have to do this, it¹s a bad sign."

Richard Walton May 12, 2012

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WHEN District of North Vancouver Mayor Richard Walton made his comment to Globe & Mail reporter Andrea Woo, he was talking about TransLink's plan to sell some of its tangible assets to offset part of its operating deficit.

But this story is not about TransLink; it is about North Vancouver school district and the sale of Ridgeway annex.

School districts have one main source of revenue: funding from school taxes Victoria collects for the purpose. So, like TransLink, it appears SD#44 plans to sell irreplaceable publicly owned land in order to balance an operating budget that has few places to turn if the board is to fulfill its mandate.

Is this because provincial funding is insufficient to enable the district to meet its obligations to students as set out in the School Act?

If not, the other possibilities would be even less pleasing - namely that allocations have been appropriate but poorly deployed, or that the school board has caught the development bug from the City of North Vancouver.

However that may be, it was the cannibalizing of Ridgeway assets proposed by the school district - my words, not hers - that led Lower Lonsdale resident Amanda Nichol to address the issue before the March 4 meeting of City of North Vancouver council.

"When any level of government sells land, it is essentially gone - forever," she said.

Then, after emphasizing to councillors the significant increase in density represented by already-approved and upcoming residential projects, Nichol continued, "We are a land-locked community. There will be virtually no opportunity to acquire land for any future schools, parks or community use."

Never a truer word was spoken.

Because unless city council tells developers like Concert Properties and the Onni Group that they cannot sell their suites to families with children, the board is walking down a dead-end street.

But even without those developments the board's rejection of an application to lease the Ridgeway Annex property for a daycare operation was disappointing.

For years, delegations to North Vancouver councils have asked to have their homes rezoned to allow owners to provide urgently needed pre-school spaces. So why not negotiate a daycare lease with some playing fields for exercise at Ridgeway?

One might have expected a well-advised board to jump at an opportunity to retain land assets for future benefit while earning lease revenues to help with the bottom line.

Unless, of course, there is something else in play residents have not yet been told about.

Why is development the preferred choice? Is it that lease revenues can only be spent on operating expenses and not on capital projects? As Nichol recognized, the sale of school lands is outside council's mandate.

Nevertheless, because the city would have to approve zoning amendments to the OCP if land is sold for development, she believes council can influence the school district's decision.

Suggesting that selling Ridgeway Annex is a short-term solution aimed at balancing the district's budget, she urged city council to "get involved with the school board" before the assets are lost to current children and future generations.

Nichol is right to bring the city into the mix, because decisions around regional council tables are exerting - and will continue to exert - significant pressures on the ability of school districts to plan for the future.

That is why local plans to dispose of lands the board claims are "surplus to our needs" cannot be allowed to proceed in isolation. It is critical that city/school board discussions happen in the context of events unfolding beyond North Shore borders.

Last November, in a panel discussion on the CBC's The National, economist Amanda Lang said this, "something like 18 per cent of (Canada's) economy is driven by construction and finances related to the housing market. And that's not good. It's not a healthy way to run your economy."

Then last Thursday, in a discussion hosted on CKNW by Province columnist Michael Smyth, a parent who lives in Vancouver's Yaletown told listeners that she and the parents of more than 80 elementary school children had to compete for only 37 spaces in the neighbourhood school. Overflow enrolments are beginning to be felt at the high-school level.

Was city council listening?

Because, as that parent and a caller from Coquitlam explained, provincial and school district capital/ operating budgets cannot keep pace with the rate at which councils are issuing development permits. Vancouver school trustee Allan Wong agreed that was the case - albeit he assured Smyth the problems were being addressed with Victoria.

The bottom line is that hundreds of Lower Mainland children - who have only one shot at their too-short school years - are being shunted from their neighbourhoods to distant schools, whether or not their friends are able to go along with them.

Contrast that with the golden opportunity North Vancouver school district has to gain lease revenue while retaining ownership of North Vancouver school lands for the benefit of what Nichol called "the boom and echo" cycles of future school enrolments.

Legislation should prohibit cannibalization of public land assets for development - at Ridgeway or anywhere else - when the intent is to offset budgetary deficits.

. . .

I erred in last week's column when I suggested I had been lobbied by a member of BEST (Better Environmentally Sound Transportation) without disclosure of a connection to the group. The gentleman in question had left the employ of BEST years earlier. My apologies to BEST.

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