Council to keep tabs on rural fund commitment

Province instead using money to aid forest workers

Houston mayor Shane Brienen says he and council will be keeping watch on the provincial government’s promise to revive its Rural Dividend Fund.

News that the province diverted $25 million from the program to help finance its recently-announced $69 million package to aid workers affected by samill operating cutbacks or closures resulted in wide-spread criticism last week among local governments who had applied for money.

“Rural communities have collectively been pressuring [forests minister] minister [Doug] Donaldson on this file [at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention,” said Brienen of last week’s annual gathering in Vancouver of local governments.

“The minister has made a commitment to restore funding in 2021, and we will be monitoring the outcome going forward.”

The diversion of money from the rural dividend program to the forest worker aid package shelved several local applications for money — two from the District of Houston and one from the Morice Mountain Nordic Ski Club.

Donaldson first indicated the money was being diverted in remarks made at a Truck Loggers Association supper Sept. 17 and followed through with a formal letter Sept. 19 to local governments who had filed applications.

“Funding this essential programming for impacted workers has required that we temporarily reallocate funding in the Rural Dividend Program,” wrote Donaldson of the province’s forest worker aid package.

“As a result, all applications received in this fiscal year’s intake period June 15-August 15, 2019, are suspended until further notice …..,” he said.

The largest District of Houston application now shelved was for $100,000 for a feasibility study and business case to deal with a long-standing issue at Bymac Park — a new location for its boat launch currently rendered unusable if not regularly dredged to remove silt.

Council also accepted a larger plan by staffers and that was to expand the park’s campground from 10 to 25 sites — equipped with potable water, power hook-ups and an on-site volunteer caretaker for fee collection — in addition to the boat launch replacement.

The District has never been able to come up with enough money of its own for a new boat launch location and instead decided to dredge the existing site pending a permanent solution.

Its second shelved application was for $10,000 to another feasibility study, this time to examine the potential for a truck stop in the downtown core.

A full-service truck stop would increase economic activity and add a service to the community and travellers.

And it was included as a prospect in the district’s longterm downtown beautification plan.

The rural dividend program was established by the former provincial BC Liberal government to help rural governments of 25,000 people or smaller find ways to diversify their programs. It provided up to $25 million a year.

Meanwhile, B.C. Liberal MLA John Rustad who represents the Nechako Lakes riding which includes Houston slammed the diversion decision.

“It is absolutely crazy to think Horgan and the NDP think it is OK to take funding away from rural communities that are hurting to provide minimal support for the forest sector,” he said.

“After running a $1.5 billion surplus last year surely they can find the funding to support both rural communities and the forest sector. The indifference this government has shown to rural B.C. and the forest sector is unbelievable.”

(with files from Blair McBride)