The following letter to the editor appeared in the October 5th edition of the Penticton Herald (link to letter):
RDOS cuts questioned
I spend about a month every year in Penticton.
I‘ve attended many events such as the beer festival, the Meadowlark Festival and the Saturday morning Farmers‘ Market. I‘ve watched the Ironman, I‘ve checked out the local wineries, I‘ve cycled the Kettle Valley Railway, I‘ve listened to Elvis (apparently he‘s still alive and kicking in Penticton), and I‘ve been to Peachfest.
I love Penticton - the orchards, the vineyards, the lakes and the clean air. In fact, I want to move to Penticton when I retire. That‘s why I was discouraged last week to read in the Sept. 21 article the RDOS axed seven jobs to save $470,000. The included eliminating the air quality co-ordinator and environmental planner.
When concern for the environment is at an all-time high, it‘s disheartening that the elected board and officials are eliminating two essential positions that are in place to protect the air we breathe, the water we play in and the land we rely on for nourishment and sanctuary.
Penticton/Similkameen is a uniquely beautiful area that depends on tourism and agriculture for much of its economical development and both need clean air and water and healthy ecosystems and soils.
In this era of environmental consciousness, this is a step back and is inconsistent with the wishes of Canadians.
As a concerned citizen, I want to know how the RDOS can justify losing two critical environmental
positions. I also want to know what is being done to ensure that environmental standards, outlined by the provincial government, are going to be met.
Unfortunately, the lure of retiring to the Penticton area has become less attractive as I‘m getting a glimpse of the priorities of local politicians, especially when other communities and cities are creating new environmental positions and sustainability plans.
This shortsighted move lacks vision and recognition of the uniqueness of this region. I just hope that all of the things I love about Penticton are still around when I retire.
Some background: The RDOS recently completed an internal audit of is operations (press release | full audit report). A committee consisting of several directors and senior management conducted the audit. The entire RDOS board then voted on the committee’s recommendations. The result was a restructuring in which several positions were eliminated. Although these changes resulted in a significant decrease in overall RDOS payroll (almost 10% by my estimate), the decision to eliminate staff was extremely difficult.
My own view is this: Unlike most businesses, governments act in a vacuum—we have no price signal to tell us whether we are doing the right things. This is not to say that governments cannot create value; it is clear they can. Indeed, many of the projects we are currently undertaking require the coordination and economies of scale that only governments can provide. At the same time, however, governments need to constantly reassess whether they are truly providing value—that is, whether every dollar of tax collected creates (on average) more than a dollar of value for residents.
It is easy to grow, but hard to shrink. The only way to achieve the right balance in the absence of market discipline is for governments to experiment periodically with fewer services/ fewer staff and then measure how we are doing. The RDOS commissioned a phone-based customer service survey earlier this year that some of you participated in. I am also in the process of putting together a larger residents’ survey. This experiment + measure process is the only reliable means we have of determining whether we have the right balance between services and the costs of delivering those services.
As for the specific issues raised in the letter, I cannot say much of a specific nature. However, I would like to make it clear that this board is committed to environmental issues. The question is how best to achieve our environmental goals given scarce resources with alternative uses. The central issue with air quality, for example, is that the issues are at least valley-wide, not RDOS-wide. Thus, we participate in Okanagan Similkameen Airshed Coalition (OSAC: see here for the latest meeting minutes), which is the organization committed to air quality in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. Our hope is that many of the tasks currently undertaken at the RDOS level can be more effectively undertaken at the OSAC-level. Not only would this provide better coordination across multiple regional districts, it offers the possibility of significant economies of scale. In other words, there is no reason for each regional district in the valley to reinvent the wheel. As the Okanagan Basin Water Board demonstrates, it is possible to pool resources around complex environmental and scientific issues.
The issue is similar with envoronmental planning. As is clear on the RDOS environmental planning page, the Province of BC has shifted much of the onus for determining the environmental impact of a development project to the developer. Developers in environmentally sensitive areas must engage a Qualified Environmental Professional (QEP) to prepare an environmental impact assessment. Our belief is that all planners should be environmental planners. The QEP program and the oversite of the province means that a dedicated environmental planner may be unnecessary.
Finally, there is the issue of structure. My own preference regarding environmental issues is to be project-based rather than function-based. A project is well-defined. It has a begining, a middle, and an end (with clear deliverables). A function, in contrast, is an on-going thing. I believe governments, like most businesses, should be more project oriented. This means reducing the number of functions within the organization and engaging outside resources (e.g., consultants) when necessary to execute projects. The ideas for the projects can come from anywhere, including citizens.