A small-community wish list for the federal election

Mel Rothenburger is the TNRD Director for Electoral Area P, including Whitecroft and Heffley Creek. He was the mayor of Kamloops from 1999-2005 and a former newspaper editor.

As the federal election draws ever closer, Canadians are making their lists and checking them twice, hoping the next government will deliver something good after election day.

It’s a time to watch and listen to what each party and candidate has to say about priorities. I have a few wishes of my own from a regional district perspective.

One is gas tax funding. While allotments to local governments are generous, the criteria for eligibility remain badly in need of revision. They need to be expanded to lend a helping hand to rural fire departments and to rural strata councils, for example.

Gas tax allotments to local governments have helped to fund important community projects such as the Sun Peaks Centre, the Sun Peaks Health Centre, and upgrades to the Heffley Creek Hall. But such things as fire trucks and new fire halls aren’t eligible, making it very hard for small communities to establish fire protection.

This year’s federal budget provided an additional one-time transfer of $2.2 billion in gas tax funds to address short-term needs. That basically doubled the allotment for the current year, which is a good thing, but the real need is in making the program more flexible.

Eligibility criteria, including the definition of “public benefit,” should be reviewed annually, not every few years.

On the subject of drinking water, the desperate need of rural communities for reliable, clean drinking water was finally recognized this year with a program that removes the barrier of these small communities having to come up with a third of the funding under infrastructure programs.

It has simply been impossible for communities of a couple of hundred or a few hundred people to afford multi-million-dollar water systems. The new Rural and Northern Communities grant program under the federal Infrastructure Program provides for 100 per cent funding—60 per cent from the federal government and 40 per cent from B.C.

But here’s the hitch. The TNRD has an application in for a $4.95-million grant to build a membrane filtration plant for the Pritchard community water system. This a major ask but that’s what filtration systems cost these days, and the concern is that there will be much more demand on the program than it can meet.

Another problem is that while the application was submitted in December, we still haven’t been given a decision, and likely won’t be until at least the end of the year due to the federal election. Meanwhile, costs continue to rise. It shouldn’t take a year to get an application through the system.

Another on the list is the expansion of mobile phone service. This is a joint federal and provincial responsibility, and there have been plenty of promises but not nearly enough action.

Dead zones for cell service are an issue all around the province. Two local ones are the Heffley valley and Pinantan area. Heffley residents have fought long and hard for cell services but it shouldn’t be so difficult.

In my view, phone companies should be required by legislation to file action plans for the expansion of cell service, which is essential these days for business services and emergencies.

Unfortunately, a lot of the focus has been on expanding Internet service, which is also crucial, but mobile phone service plays second fiddle with occasional announcements that sound good but don’t deliver to communities off the major corridors.

So, these are things I’ll be looking at closely to compare the platforms of the various federal parties.