Lakes District News has asked the newly elected mayor Chris Beach and councillor Michael Riis-Christianson what their priorities are for the next two years and how they plan to address them. Beach and Riis-Christianson were also asked about council conflict and the long-term overview of Burns Lake. Here’s what they had to say:
What do you think are the main priorities for Burns Lake over the next couple of years?
Mayor Beach: Council has already set the main priorities for the next two years in strategic planning sessions. Replacing infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner will be a top priority.
Councillor Riis-Christianson: Council’s first priority over the next two years has to be the development of a mid-term timber supply mitigation strategy. The impending reduction in the Lakes Timber Supply Area’s allowable annual cut (AAC), which will likely see the amount of timber that can be harvested here each year reduced by 70 per cent or more, has the potential to devastate our economy. As a community, we need to develop a strategy that will soften that economic blow as much as possible. As a council, we also need to address our infrastructure deficit. Portions of our water, sewer, and transportation systems are desperately in need of major repair or replacement, and every year that we postpone these works only exacerbates the problem and increases the likelihood of catastrophic failure. Council has started this process by moving forward with replacement of the Fifth Avenue water tower, but there is much more work to be done. We also need to become more targeted in our spending, focusing on meeting our needs rather than wants. We must review our current spending on recreation, for example, and that’s a council goal for the coming year. Finally, it’s important that we strengthen our ties with First Nations and Electoral Areas B and E of the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako. This includes exploring opportunities for collaboration on programs, facilities, etc. The days when we could all operate in isolation are over (or at least should be). We face common problems – finite financial resources, impending economic disruption, etc. – and the only way we can address them is by working together.
What do you plan to do to address those priorities?
Mayor Beach: We will be starting construction of a new Burns Lake water tower in 2017, of which the $2.6 million cost will be 80 per cent covered by provincial and federal grants. We will continue to plan to replace infrastructure in a way that our taxpayers can afford. The village will put together a task force of industry, First Nations, community and government stakeholders to create a plan for diversifying our economy. At the same time, the village will continue to implement our economic diversification strategic plan to retain and expand local businesses.
Councillor Riis-Christianson: Council has applied for grant funding to develop the mid-term timber supply mitigation strategy. While this is a good plan, we need to have a back-up in place should that funding not be forthcoming. We can’t afford to delay this like we have with capital works projects; the Lakes Timber Supply review will likely be complete in four years or less, which leaves us little time to prepare for the anticipated AAC reduction. I will be pushing hard for us to identify alternative sources of funding to ensure the mitigation strategy is in place before the next village general election. In terms of infrastructure replacement, the village’s current five-year capital plan relies almost exclusively on grant funding to complete major repairs to our road, sewer, and water systems. As we saw with the proposed Eighth Avenue/Center Street project, relying on grant funding isn’t really a viable option, because most federal and provincial grant programs are over-subscribed. After all, the infrastructure deficit isn’t just a Burns Lake issue; nearly every municipality in Canada is facing the same problem. For this reason, I will be encouraging council to commit to doing critical works regardless of whether grant funding is available. It may mean the municipality has to incur some debt to do it, and while that isn’t the preferred option, it may be our only one. As mentioned, we can’t continue to apply Band-Aid solutions to our infrastructure issues. Council is already committed to preparing a recreation master plan in 2017, one that we can use to manage village recreation spending. I fully support this, and look forward to participating in the exercise. During the coming budget deliberations, I will also be looking closely at all proposed expenditures to ensure they pass the ‘needs vs. wants’ test. Spending proposals that target wants rather needs, don’t directly relate to council’s 2017 goals, or fail to address pressing problems won’t have my support.
One of the topics during the all candidates forum was about council conflict. What will you do to improve any tension on council?
Mayor Beach: Council is planning to start the year off with some strategic team building sessions and workshops to make sure we are all on the same page. Having said that, as a newly elected mayor I am fully committed to working with all of council to put Burns Lake first.
Councillor Riis-Christianson: The years ahead will be difficult. And as we work our way through the issues facing our town — mid-term timber supply, re-inventing ourselves in the face of economic upheaval, figuring out how to replace of our aging infrastructure without selling our souls to the municipal finance authority – we won’t always agree on the best course of action. I fully expect that discussion will often be heated, not only in the community, but around the council table. To be honest, I hope that it is, because it will be a sign that we are an engaged community. Debate and discussion are good; conflict is not. I strongly encourage every member of council and staff to consider 2017 as a ‘fresh start.’ We need to leave any emotional baggage we may be carrying – anger over past differences of opinion, hurt inflicted by previous injuries (real or perceived), frustration at what may seem as a lack of progress – at the door to council chambers and enter the room in January with open minds and new attitudes. As council members and staff, we might not always respect the individual sitting across the table from us, but we should respect the office that person holds. No matter how animated or strained our conversations become, it’s imperative that we remember this and treat each other with dignity and respect. If anyone steps ‘out of bounds’ in this regard, I will call him/her on it and remind us of why we’re on council. If necessary, I’ll try to mediate. I hope others will do the same if, in the heat of debate, I don’t play nice. Acting Mayor Illes has proposed that council participate in a team orientation session in January. I support that in principle, but it will only work if everyone around the table is committed to the process.
How do you see Burns Lake in the long term? What are the opportunities and threats?
Mayor Beach: I think that the biggest challenge for the Village of Burns Lake will be to help maintain a strong local economy and replace aging infrastructure in a way that doesn’t overly burden our current taxpayers and future generations.
Councillor Riis-Christianson: As I’ve noted, Burns Lake and the Lakes District as a whole face major threats, the most serious being the impending mid-term timber supply shortage. Yet with every crisis comes opportunity. We can choose to do nothing about the problems we face and let them defeat us, or we can view them as opportunities for growth and change. Burns Lake has many assets, the least of which is the strength, resiliency, and courage of its people. The Babine disaster proved that we can overcome adversity. I believe our future prosperity depends on (1) our ability to work together, (2) our capacity to think ‘outside the box’, (3) our willingness to change, and (4) our belief in ourselves. We must challenge the status quo at every opportunity, because the ‘status quo’ isn’t going to work in the future, and we need to be confident enough in our own abilities to take some calculated risks. I’m a firm believer in the power of positive thinking. Henry Ford has been quoted as saying: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t – you’re right.” When our village started working on the community forest proposal in the late 1990s, a lot of people – some of them respected community leaders and senior politicians – said we were wasting our time, that ‘little’ Burns Lake would never be able to compete with larger municipalities for a chance to pilot a new forest tenure. Yet we not only succeeded, we blew the competition away. Similarly, when a few of us got together in 2009-10 with the dream of re-opening the Beacon Theatre as a community-owned facility, plenty of folks scoffed at the idea and said it couldn’t be done. Once again, we proved them wrong. We beat the odds, and I think that as a community, we can do the same again – but only if have the will to succeed and the belief that we can.