Another penny a week for the ALC

The survival and success of the Agricultural Land Reserve is a key reason for saving the Garden City Lands, a favoured battleground of anti-ALR forces. If they had won the Richmond battles, the precedent would have meant that most other ALR land on British Columbia could not be justifiably protected. Not surprisingly, the Garden City Lands Coalition Society is appreciative of the strengthening of the Agricultural Land Commission in the past six months. The commission is still severely underfunded, and we’re told that the Public Accounts Committee of the B.C. Legislature can help fix that. The society, through the board of directors, recently sent the following message to the fifteen Liberal, NDP, and independent MLAs on the Public Accounts Committee.

If you just want an executive summary, you could skim to the final paragraph, which is in green.

 B.C. Legislature Public Accounts Committee Members:

    The Garden City Lands Coalition, a large community-service NGO based in Richmond, asks the Public Accounts Committee to support an increase in the operating funds for the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) for the coming year from this year’s $2,088,000, which was cited disapprovingly in the September 2010 Auditor General’s report. It was far below the $2,930,000 the ALC received eight years earlier and also “below its minimal requirements to maintain its core business.” In view of inflation and the need to remediate the effects of decreased funding for the past seven years, we suggest that the ALC funding for 2011–12 be raised to at least $4.5 million.

    Allow us to provide another piece of the picture before we say more about the value of investment in a stronger ALC. In June 2010, former Minister of Agriculture and Lands Steve Thomson appointed a new chair and CEO of the Agricultural Land Commission, Richard Bullock. He has provided effective leadership. Within his first half year, he earned wide approval from hard-to-impress advocates for long-term land planning for a resilient agricultural sector and improved food security. The good work of Mr. Bullock and his team has been evident in key decisions and in the ALC’s interaction with a range of stakeholders in the 2010 ALR Review process. We have been pleased to observe that the new Minister of Agriculture, Ben Stewart, has taken up where his predecessor left off and is demonstrably supportive of Mr. Bullock and the ALC. These developments will be very helpful for ongoing implementation of the BC Agriculture Plan, especially the ALC’s specific duties. The remaining element that would fill out the promising picture is adequate funding.

    For a start, that would help meet the urgent and extensive need for more enforcement, in keeping with the recent Auditor General’s report on the ALC. One of the report recommendations is to “ensure that [the commission] has a sufficiently robust compliance and enforcement program.” We agree that a well-planned program of monitoring and improving compliance with the ALR Regulation could do wonders to resolve ongoing problems. At the moment, for example, improper dumping on ALR land is rampant, and there is even blatant building of what’s not permitted. And those are just a couple of indicators that are visible to ordinary passers-by. A current Richmond example of the need for an effective level of enforcement is the Lulu Island Winery situation on ALR land in East Richmond. The company built a large complex that has been widely reported to be inconsistent with the ALR Regulation. The construction appears to have happened with at-least-tacit approval from city staff, and there were Richmond council members present at the opening. The provincial government seems to be hopeful that local governments will take on a large part of the ALC’s enforcement role, but the expectation is wishful thinking, and local governments’ offers of enforcement would be unreliable anyway, since they themselves are often covetous of ALR land for short-term gain.

    Open deviations from the ALC Act can occur with impunity because there are only two ALR enforcement officers for the whole province. If those two employees could somehow manage to spend half of their workdays out in the field, each spot-checking 2,000 hectares of ALR a day, it would take them ten years to cover B.C.’s 4.7 million hectares of ALR land just once in that cursory way.  With an increase to twenty enforcement officers, all of B.C. could be spot-checked once a year. That would still be minimal, but it would make a welcome difference. Even if there can’t be funding for that every year, it is at least needed annually for the next two or three years so that the situation can be measured and the deterioration slowed down.

    We have also observed from public records that commissioners are being paid for little more than the days when their panels are meeting. However, we know from firsthand experience with a huge and highly complex ALR-exclusion application related to Richmond land that a great deal of background reading and listening can be necessary for the commissioners to be able to make optimal ALR-exclusion decisions, one of the most essential services  the tribunal is meant to provide. The number of days that each commissioner has been paid for are shown on the ALC website, and we think that the cost of at least doubling those days to enable in-depth study and more attention to local residents would prove to be a sound investment.

    We suggest that the Agricultural Land Commission funding for the next fiscal year be adjusted to at least $4.5 million, with your committee and the auditor general monitoring the performance to ensure that it is cost-effectively sufficient in view of the long-range goals of the commission. As long as the ALC is showing measurable good results — value per dollar for incremental staffing costs — we think the increase would be a good use of tax money. In fact, we would go beyond that modest claim and suggest that very few uses of the taxpayers’ money would have such high impact. The suggested increase for next year happens to be equal to just over one cent per week per British Columbian above the funding for the current year. Please support that wise expenditure of the taxpayers’ pennies.

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