An upcoming referendum over a proposed new pool has divided residents in the District of Vanderhoof.
District council wants to hike property taxes by more than 19 per cent to finance a $4-million loan as part of a plan to build a $12 million aquatic centre. The rest of the money is expected to come from other government sources as well as corporate and private donations.
Two parallel referendums on Feb. 16, one in the municipality of Vanderhoof and the other in the rural area surrounding the community known as Area F of the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako, will give residents and landowners the chance to weigh the cost of the aquatic centre proposal with the benefits of having a pool nearby.
Coun. Steve Little, the chairman of the community's pool committee, said the aquatic centre will promote healthy living and address safety concerns.
"We've got a river that flows through town and there have been a few drownings over the years and we have no place to teach our kids how to swim," he said.
Vanderhoof resident Marje Makow opposes the plan based on the long-term debt the community would assume - the plan is to pay the $4 million back over 30 years - and the jump in taxes. She said the project is "a colossal waste of taxpayers' money."
"I don't think our residents are really thinking this through," Makow said. "That's a huge increase in taxes. If it was for anything other than a pool, I think our town would be in a total uproar."
According to a brochure produced by the pool committee, the annual cost for an average homeowner in town with a home value of $159,000 would be $138.02. Little acknowledged the cost of the plan is a concern for some people.
"We're getting push backs on some fronts but other people are saying, 'it's worth it,' " he said, noting his own tax bill would go up $240 a year if the referendum passes. "If I still had kids that needed swimming lessons and I had to drive to Prince George, I wold eat that up within a week and half of me driving back and forth."
Makow said she would prefer the community focus on other priorities such as a community recreation centre which could be used by more people than a swimming pool and infrastructure improvements for the town's growing population.
"There are a lot of other issues that need settling before we even dream about building a swimming pool, in my opinion," she said. "We just cannot simply afford it, we don't have the tax base to support a pool."
Two previous referendums have failed to garner enough support to get the pool built, in large part due to resistance from rural residents. In an effort to make the proposal more palatable to ranchers, Little said this time people from the regional district will only see their taxes go up on the improvements on their properties - for instance buildings - rather than the value of their entire property.
Vanderhoof residents are being asked to pick up 72 per cent of the $900,000 annual cost for capital and operational expenses of the facility, with rural residents on the hook for the other 28 per cent.
"If the regional area voted against it and Vanderhoof voted for it, the council of Vanderhoof would have to sit back and take a look and say, 'can we afford to do it on our own?' " Little said. "It's two separate votes and pretty much it has to pass them both for us to move ahead."
If the vote passes, Little and his community members would begin fundraising for the other $8 million. The tax increase won't take effect until all the money is raised and the project is ready for construction.
There have been preliminary discussions with companies interested in contributing to the project but there's been no formal requests from private companies.
"We haven't really started because without a mandate from the people, we can't really go and ask people, 'are you willing to give us money if we pass it,' " Little said.
Both Makow and Little expect the vote to be tight, but hope their side will come out on top when all the ballots are counted.
"I'm fairly optimistic," Little said. "More so in Vanderhoof than in the regional area because the use is going to be more Vanderhoof but my gut feeling at this time is that it will pass."
Voters in Vanderhoof will also be electing a new councillor on Feb. 16 following the resignation of Louise Levy. Makow is one of three candidates running for the office along with John Murphy and Peet Vahi.
Polls will be open on Feb. 16 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Nechako Senior Friendship Centre in Vanderhoof and the Cluculz Lake Community Hall. Advance voting is available on Feb. 6 at the District of Vanderhoof office, also from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Property owners in the Cluculz Lake area only also have the option of voting by mail.