In a continuing series with mayors around the Okanagan, Castanet reporter Carmen Weld sat down with Vernon mayor Rob Sawatzky to discuss some of the pressing issues facing Vernon.
It was just announced on Monday that Predator Ridge will be getting their own fire hall within the next year, something Sawatzky says was inevitable and needed.
“That community has grown dramatically over the last number of years so for the safety of everyone and to provide equal service throughout our whole city the fire hall is moving ahead as has been planned for a while.”
Construction companies will be asked to bid on the project with the hope of having the new fire hall up and running within a year.
As to why it was an absolutely must Sawatzky says it all comes down to maintaining response time.
“We simply must, with a professional fire department, provide fire protection within a certain response time and to meet those standards you have to be close enough to do that.”
The City of Vernon does have to deal with several 'satellite' communities like Predator Ridge that are outside the downtown core.
“We have to deal with the realities on the ground. We have several of what you would call satellite communities that are much further away from the core of the city, you would not consider to be smart growth planning, but that is the reality.”
Trying to combine satellite communities, as well as Coldstream and Areas B and C, was a challenge for Vernon this year.
“We thought it was of value to the citizens of Greater Vernon to have an independent study done on whether there were efficiencies to combining governance,” said Sawatzky, something that was not agreed on by the other partners leaving the City of Vernon no way to more forward.
“Although our intention was to encourage the other potential partners to have referendums in their jurisdictions to see whether their citizens would be interested, they have declined, so we have no potential partners to move forward with.”
Sawatzky admits that study may have shown there were no efficiency gains from a proposed amalgamation, but believes there is no way to know for sure until an independent study is done.
Castanet received several tips into the newsroom about the lack of employment in the Vernon area. Work BC rates Vernon as having the highest unemployment rate in the area at 7.7 per cent, something the Mayor says they are well aware of.
“The population is generally retirees, the development sector is generally selling to wealthy retirees from elsewhere so your unemployment stats change,” he explains.
“That said, we are fully aware that without a strong sustainable economy we do not have a strong sustainable community and although the tools for local government are restricted we are very keenly interested in economic development.”
He says his council has made economic development a key priority and found ways to fund a long term economic planner for their community.
“We are continually trying to do whatever we can to make our community attractive, efficient and effective so that we can attract the sort of people that we think is our niche,” said Sawatzky.
He was quick to mention that he would love to see a major university in Vernon, even wishing UBCO would move their campus north.
“I think one way you can insure the sustainability of your economy is to have a major university in your community. This brings young people, people that have recession proof earnings and the vibrant intellectual capital that you get from that.”
A common theme in all our Okanagan mayor interviews has been the failing and older infrastructure in the Okanagan, a sentiment also true in Vernon.
Sawatzky says his team is doing what they can as quick as they can, but with little tax resources to pull from (property taxes and fees) it is a slow process.
“Coming up with a long term sustainable plan to fund and maintain our assets and our infrastructure is going to be well over $100 million in terms of assets we have identified that have to be funded and maintained.”
“It it is not exciting, it is essential,” he adds.
The municipal election is also coming up this fall, leaving many Vernon residents wondering if Sawatzky will run again.
“That will be a decision I will make in discussion with my family, probably early this summer."
“I do enjoy it, but it is a lot of work. We are a community that is a lot bigger than it used to be. There are a lot of issues and a not a lot time,” explained Sawatzky.
“I have to say though that the community has been great to work with and the council has been great to work with and we have a real professional staff here at the City.”
Although the upcoming change in term length from three to four years does not personally affect his decision to run he feels it will affect the council.
“The councillors here have a heck of a work load and not much of a salary,” shared Sawatzky. “How much time then, and for how long, are people really willing to basically volunteer for the position.”