The spending splurge of B.C.’s New Democratic government continues.
Premier David Eby announced Friday morning (Feb. 10) in Surrey that his government would distribute grants worth $1 billion to municipalities and regional districts by the end of March 2023.
Communities will be able to use the grants to build affordable housing infrastructure and amenities to prepare for future growth.
“Cities need more resources than what are available,” Eby said. B.C. faces an infrastructure need now because of decisions made by past governments, he added. “Every B.C. community should be place where you can build a good life.”
Friday’s announcement happened in Surrey, whose population has been growing rapidly.
“As we know, Surrey is the fastest-growing city in the province,” Surrey Mayor Brenda Locke said. “With that growth, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to work together to create livable communities and create a variety of housing options.”
Friday’s announcement comes on the heels of Monday’s throne speech, which signalled Eby’s government would make heavy use of B.C.’s surplus of $5.7 billion.
Eby said municipalities don’t have to apply for the grants. The province will instead use a population-based formula that looks at population growth between 2016 and 2021 to hand out the money with the smallest grant amount being $500,000.
He added that the formula also recognizes that rural communities with smaller populations have higher costs in delivering services.
While the Ministry of Municipal Affairs will offer “guidance” and “suggestions” in working with municipalities and regional districts to identify needs, local governments will have the final say, he said.
“We are putting a lot of faith in local government and regional districts to know what the priorities are in their communities,” Eby said. While the province considered a grant-based system, it would have taken about a year to be up and running, he added.
“Communities don’t have time for that. They need the resources right now.”
Eby clarified that money could not be used for operating costs. It has to go into infrastructure and amenities like community centres, sewage plants and roads among other items. Local governments will also put the money into a separate account to make sure that they are accountable to their communities, so that residents can see how much money has gone into which projects, he added.
“They can certainly use (grants) to complement other municipal funding, but we want them to be transparent about where the money actually ends up,” he said.
When asked whether local governments have enough time to tap into the funding between now and March 31, Eby said the province hopes that municipalities have shovel-ready projects.
“We believe that most municipalities do,” he said. “The reason why we believe this is because we have provincial infrastructure grant programs where cities have applied for funding. They have those projects proposed, they have them prepared, they have them costed…but we exhausted the funds before the project was able to be funded.”
Jen Ford, president of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, welcomed the funding, saying it represents an “unprecedented transfer” that will help meet the needs of B.C.’s growing population by expanding facilities, replacing aging infrastructure and support climate adaptation.
“By delivering the funds with maximum flexibility, the (province) is ensuring that they will be directed to urgent local priorities,” Ford said. “This shows tremendous commitment from the province and is welcome news for residents in all communities.”
Kamloops-North Thompson MLA Peter Milobar of the B.C. Liberals said he is sure the announcement pleasantly surprised many municipalities.
“But as with most of these things, the devil (is) in the details,” he said.
For example, it is not clear whether municipalities will have to pony up their own money to get projects off the ground. It also unclear how the province will measure success and ensure accountability, he added.
If the B.C. Liberals had been been in power, the public would have seen far more details, he said, when asked whether B.C. Liberals would have liked to have announced the grants.
“That’s the underlying concern across the board, as we see the government start coming up with ways to spend $5 billion in 45 days.”
A three-time mayor of Kamloops, Milobar, said he is a little bit torn. Municipalities always have projects that need money quickly to get them started, he said.
“But to be basically told, as a municipality, you have 40 (plus) days or the money is not going to be there anymore, is problematic, especially for smaller communities.”