Kelowna mayor details work with province on city council priorities

Working with the province

In late March, Kelowna city council received a progress report on its priorities and I am happy to share we have completed or made significant progress on many of the 22 action item measures.

In fact, council convened a strategic planning session April 27 to review and refine our priorities as we approach the mid-point of our term. Although this is commendable news, we know that there is still more that can and will be done.

As a city, we need to come to terms with the fact that, for some of our priorities, we simply cannot tackle them alone. As a municipality we have limits on our jurisdiction and we do not have the mandate nor the level of authority to fully address many of the challenges cities face such as homelessness, transportation, mental mealth and addiction and housing.

By working with our provincial and federal governments, we can ensure our community receives the support and resources it needs and deserves. In my role as mayor, advocacy is not simply a duty, it is a crucial tool for municipal leaders to effect positive change and address the pressing issues facing our growing community.

In early April, I took those advocacy needs and asks to Victoria, and while at the B.C. Legislature, I met with ministers responsible in four critical areas, to advocate for increased support for mental health and addiction, transportation and infrastructure, and affordable housing.

Each of those issues and needs is intertwined with the well-being of our community and addressing them in a respectful, meaningful and more impactful way requires proactive engagement and collaboration with senior levels of government. During my visit I was also able to connect with our local MLAs, Renee Merrifield, Norm Letnick and Ben Stewart and thank them for always being open to connecting with us on all our visits to Victoria.

First and foremost, mental health and addiction are challenges that touch the lives of countless individuals and families in our city. During my visit to the legislature, I met with Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside, and I emphasized our community’s urgent need for expanded services and resources to address these complex issues that surround homelessness. We discussed increased funding for treatment and prevention programs including complex care and I also brought forward the concerns with impacts faced by our community, first responders, businesses, and community safety due to the government’s drug decriminalization pilot.

The minister agreed that the importance of us working together, alongside our agency partners Interior Health and B.C. Housing, to ensure that those in our community who need the help, can access the supports they need to get well.

Moreover, there is no one-size-fits all solution to addressing the complex mental health and addictions challenges, but rather a well-rounded approach that encompasses not only treatment but also prevention, education, supportive housing, and community support services such as for career skills and planning to help people get back on their feet.

Transportation and infrastructure are essential components of a thriving and connected city. As Kelowna continues to grow, we must invest in sustainable, efficient, and multi-modal transportation systems that connect residents to jobs, education, and essential services. We need more investment to help build connection by providing safer routes to visit friends and family, access services, amenities, employment, and recreation opportunities, and explore new neighbourhoods.

During my meeting with Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Rob Fleming, and Minister of State for Infrastructure and Transit Dan Coulter, I spoke about the need for transportation infrastructure improvements to improve the connectivity and access from Kelowna International Airport to UBCO to downtown – alleviating congestion on Highway 97 and the planning and advocacy work on the Highway 33/Clement Avenue extension project.

I also encouraged more dialogue and awareness on how we can work together to expand public transit in the Kelowna Regional Transit System, particularly advocating for a new Transit Operations Centre and the desire to initiate and see the electrification of our bus fleet to align with climate and environmental goals.

Our community and region has outgrown the current facility at Hardy Street and we must ensure that planning and commitments today will meet the future needs of our community as we grow. Our conversation also touched on the intent for the potential of future high-speed connectivity and transportation options along the Rail Trail.

Housing continues to be a leading issue and concern for many of our residents. We are witnessing more and more people and families in our city face difficulties finding housing that is accessible and affordable and that offers them a secure, safe, place to live.

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon has been an engaged and collaborative partner with Kelowna and we have achieved significant progress by securing provincial investments in affordable housing projects. These include support programs that address homelessness and housing instability, such as the work done with B.C. Housing, through the province’s Heart and Hearth program to develop STEP Place and Trailside Transitional Housing, and the investment through the Community Housing Fund Kelowna received that will create 68 new homes for families, seniors and people with disabilities on Cross Road, as well as through the B.C. Builds program to foster collaborative partnership to create attainable homes for middle-income residents.

During our discussions in Victoria, we continued on the course of collaboration to see more homes built. While we discussed the minister’s plan to include Kelowna among the next group of Housing Supply Act target communities, the minister recognized Kelowna’s leadership in housing development. I also brought up the impacts and residents’ feedback I have received from the recent short-term rental legislation, especially given the importance of tourism to Kelowna.

Making strides on complex care

One notable success story in our advocacy journey is the recent commitment for a new purpose-built complex care and supportive housing facility dedicated to mental health and addiction treatment, which the province announced here in Kelowna on April 15.

Through collaboration with community partners, engaging in dialogue with the Ministers and our local MLAs, and persistent advocacy efforts, we were able to demonstrate the urgent need for such a facility and garner support from the provincial government. The new facility will include 20 newly constructed complex-care housing units and at least 20 supportive housing units. It will soon be going to design phase and engagement with the neighbourhood will commence. This project serves as a testament to the importance of developing relationships between levels of government, and the power of advocacy to drive meaningful change and improve the lives of our residents.

A consistent message resulting in reform

There is also much advocacy work being done about drug use and decriminalization. The province’s recent announcement was encouraging news. The City of Kelowna has been a leading advocate, and I have personally taken a strong position, to have parks, playgrounds, splash pads, business entrances and public transit exempt as part of the province’s illicit drug decriminalization pilot project.

As the province’s drug use ban announcement continues to develop, we look forward to understanding the context in which it will benefit our community. I am happy to see that our efforts to push the Province for further empowering RCMP and giving them the tools and authority necessary to ensure public safety has paid off, as this has continuously been requested by our residents and businesses.

With this success in mind, we are still advocating on behalf of residents’ concerns when it comes to the recent legislative changes on short-term rentals. Council collectively continues to advocate to the provincial government to consider exemptions for short-term?rentals?in properties originally zoned for this specific purpose.

Advocacy is not just a responsibility, it’s an essential tool for municipal leaders to uphold their communities' interests. By working with all levels of government, as well as agency partners, and pushing for solutions to important issues including mental health and addiction, transportation and infrastructure and housing, we can make positive change and build stronger, more resilient communities for the future.

I would be remiss if I did not thank and commend the city’s inter-governmental relations team, who played an integral role in ensuring these connections were made, relationships built,and advocacy commitments kept.

As Kelowna’s mayor, I promise to keep advocating, collaborating and working to get results for a better future for everyone.

Tom Dyas is the mayor of Kelowna.

More Opinion articles