Think before you sign

Sshhh.

Listen.

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Do you hear that? That scratching sound?

That's the sound of pens scratching out signatures onto stacks of paper. The sound is a little louder than normal since many of those people are pressing the pen into the paper with more anger and intensity than they normally would when signing their own name.

That's because they're signing some or all of the 11 elector response forms as part of the alternative approval process.

Huh?

Sorry, here it is in plain English, instead of city hall jargon - they're signing petitions against the city borrowing money to pay for 11 infrastructure projects totalling more than $32 million.

The 11 projects and their associated costs are:

Vehicle, equipment replacement - $2.9 million

mausoleum expansion - $1.4 million

facility roof replacements - $4.7 million

Aquatic Centre renovation, upgrade - $10.2 million

Masich Place renovation, upgrade - $2.7 million

Ron Brent Park redevelopment - $1.7 million

14th Avenue upgrade - $1.2 million

Domano/St. Lawrence intersection improvement - $0.5 million

Highway 16 West frontage - $0.8 million

Goose Country Road culvert replacement - $1.1 million

Street light, traffic signal replacements - $5 million

Today is the first day residents can drop off their petitions - sorry, elector response forms - at city hall. The deadline for submitting completed forms is May 30.

If more than about 5,600 forms are submitted on any one or all of the 11 projects, city council either has to take the proposed borrowing plan to a community referendum, find another way to pay for the projects or walk away from them, in whole or part.

They're called forms instead of petitions because all 11 projects have their own form, either two or three pages each, explaining the alternative approval process, a summary of the specific project and the signature, which also requires the printed name of the resident, their address and checking a box to confirm they either live in city limits or don't but own property in Prince George.

No simple petition signature here.

And for anyone opposed to all of it, that will require filling out 11 forms and submitting 25 pieces of paper to city hall.

Still, the organizers of the petition drive are motivated, organized and seem to have significant public support for their efforts but we won't know for sure until the end of May.

But what are people so mad about?

Eight of these 11 projects are for less than $3 million, meaning the city could simply tap into reserve funds or increase taxes without going to the public for permission and, more importantly, without going to the bank for a loan.

The other three projects are for infrastructure upkeep. Investing in maintaining buildings and equipment you own, whether you're a home owner, a business owner or local government, is never a bad idea. Although borrowing to do it is far from ideal, the long term benefits - both to the infrastructure and the bottom line - is still positive.

Discussion with anyone opposed to this borrowing plan, from the petition organizers to folks calling and sending letters to the editor, reveals the alternative approval process is being used as a tool to air multiple grievances.

Upset about senior salaried city mangers being paid overtime during the 2017 Cariboo wildfire evacuation crisis?

Upset about the significant increases in wages of senior city managers over the past five years, far exceeding what unionized staff received in their contracts?

Upset about the significant increase in the number of employees at the City of Prince George in the past five years?

Upset about the significant increase in property taxes and utilities in the past five years?

Upset about the Haggith Creek Bridge construction mess and the multimillion dollar cost overrun with no one being held responsible?

Upset about a local government that should be a world leader in snow removal efficiency having to hire a retired senior city manager to review road clearing operations after the fiasco that happened over the last few days of 2018?

Upset the mayor and incumbent city councillors never mentioned a plan to borrow $32 million during last October's election? Upset the city didn't put that borrowing plan forward as a referendum question for voters to decide?

Little or nothing residents can do about any of those individual grievances.

Signing a petition on a city borrowing plan, however, even one that kinda sorta makes sense, gives frustrated taxpayers a powerful tool to remind mayor and council who's the boss.

Signing will do nothing to address those previously listed but it will certainly put city council on notice that taxpayers expect better.

As for those last three items - the pool upgrade, the roof replacements and the traffic and street lights - that make up nearly $19.9 million, the city received $11.3 million in infrastructure money last month but said it was putting the money into reserves, rather than towards specific projects. The traffic and street lights, as well as the roof replacements, could be paid for with money left over and without having to borrow a cent.

In the end, however, what happens if all or some of these projects are rejected in the alternative approval process is uncertain. It's that uncertainty that should be cause for caution before signing.

What next?

Each form should be read carefully before signing with full knowledge and understanding of what's being rejected, along with acceptance of the unpredictable consequences.

Lots of reasons to sign but plenty more reasons to think carefully before rushing out to that scratching sound with a pen.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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