May 23, 2023
A white elephant is a possession that its owner cannot dispose of, and whose cost, particularly that of maintenance, is out of proportion to its usefulness. In modern usage, it is a metaphor used to describe an object, construction project, scheme, business venture, facility, etc. considered expensive but without equivalent utility or value relative to its capital (acquisition) and/or operational (maintenance) costs. Wikipedia
Pushover – someone unable to resist an attraction or appeal (synonyms: sucker, chump). Merriam-Webster
There has been a recent disturbing pattern of discretionary (non-essential) capital projects eating into the Town’s finances. One of these is the emerging financial fiasco of the much promoted “community” running track at Ballenas Secondary School – a proposed project that is definitely off the track.
After securing a cost-sharing arrangement with regional taxpayers, the small group of promoters are back at QB Town Hall looking for more money. QB Town Council is scheduled to say yes or no at its regular Council meeting on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.
Before taking a closer look at the evolving Ballenas track fiasco, let’s review another poorly managed third-party capital project that the Town of Qualicum Beach bailed out financially.
Into the Woods ran into the ditch
Two early education facilities have been built in the past couple of years in Qualicum Beach, one sponsored by a non-profit and managed by the Town of Qualicum Beach, and the other managed by School District 69. The contrast between the two is stark, one a success, the other a mess.
First, the mess. A local non-profit, the Qualicum Community Education and Wellness Society, which had no experience in managing capital projects, nevertheless convinced the Town to fund its early education concept. The Into the Woods Early Learning Studio lurched into existence after the Town of Qualicum Beach donated the northwest corner of the QB Community Park, and then secured $2 million in capital funding from the BC Government.
In addition, the Town naively accepted liability for any construction cost overruns. Sure enough, part-way through construction, this venture turned into a $2.5 million capital project, and we QB taxpayers picked up the tab for the extra $500,000.
But the project still couldn’t get off the ground. Apparently, no one had thought to include any money to hire someone to plan the facility’s actual operations prior to opening shop. So, the assigned operators of Into the Woods Early Learning Studio came back to the Town, this time asking for an operational start-up loan of $65,000 from QB taxpayers.
Now, the success. Across Town, School District 69 (SD 69) quietly and competently constructed a two-classroom stand-alone building. This project expanded an existing school program, the Arrowview Kids Club, and was built on the corner of the existing Arrowview Elementary School. The Arrowview Kids Club expansion opened in fall 2021 — two years ahead of the white elephant project, Into the Woods, which was overseen by the Town of Qualicum Beach. Both had been expected to open in 2021.
We are not aware that anyone from the Arrowview project came before QB Town Council asking for financial bail-out.
Three years ago, in our analysis of the mishmash of government bodies pushing for daycare expansion, A fix for QB daycare chaos, we suggested that perhaps SD 69 ought to make use of some of their idle real estate at the Qualicum Commons to locate the Town’s central early learning facility.
Reason and hindsight both suggest that from the get-go, all of these facilities ought to be have been developed and managed within the umbrella of what is now called the BC Ministry of Education and Child Care. The Town can justifiably be criticized for jumping the gun in advance of the provincial government’s efforts to consolidate these functions.
So, burned by its white elephant day care experience, has the Town become more prudent in its rush to hand over cash to dubious, discretionary projects? Apparently not.
The Ballenas Track of Dreams
Over the past couple of years, a group of track and field enthusiasts have been beating the drum for a new “community” training track at Ballenas Secondary School in Parksville.
School District 69 has committed $200,000 in capital funds. The Regional District of Nanaimo committed $563,000 (including $56,400 from Qualicum Beach taxpayers), for a total of $763,000, to be provided through a Contribution and Usage Agreement with the Oceanside Track Steering Committee — conditional on the project sponsors raising the remaining funds.
The Oceanside Community Track group’s website states that in November 2020, Koers and Associates Engineering estimated the capital cost of the project to be $1.5 million. Both construction and borrowing costs have risen since then, and inflationary adjustments can also be expected.
Qualicum Beach taxpayers’ share of the RDN commitment, $56,400, is about 10% of the $563,800, and was approved by QB Town Council at their regular meeting on July 21, 2021.
Then Finance Director John Marsh provided a backgrounder staff report with the meeting agenda explaining why 10% was a reasonable proportion for Qualicum Beach, relative to the contributions already committed by Parksville as well as RDN Areas G and H.
Conspicuously absent was any contribution from Area E (Nanoose Bay) or Area F (Coombs, Hilliers, Errington, Whiskey Creek, Meadowood.)
What is School District 69 contributing to the proposed Ballenas track?
In addition to providing the physical space for the track at the Ballenas School site, and its commitment to “providing any ongoing operating needs of such a project,” Ron Amos, SD 69 Secretary-Treasurer, explains that their paymaster, the BC Ministry of Education does not provide capital “for any additional amenities beyond the school building.”
Amos elaborated, “Occasionally funding is provided to support playground structures but at no time does the Ministry provide funding for structures and facilities such as envisioned with our Track renovation project. The school district has no call on the provincial government to repair or replace the track, and has no capacity within its ongoing capital or operating budgets to afford the kind of work that is required now to make the track a functional asset for the school district and for the community at large.”
As it turns out, the project sponsors, under the leadership of Elaine Young, President, Oceanside Community Track Society have not even come close to raising their half of the necessary capital for the project.
So, is the project dead? Not yet.
Rather than fold their tents, the track enthusiasts are back asking the District’s taxpayers to make up the funding shortfall of $712,000 (so far). Unless this project is halted, the “Track of Dreams” will become a nightmarish burden on local taxpayers, another dubious, non-essential White Elephant that appears to have attracted no sizable corporate sponsorship or other funding sources.
Now the really bad news for QB taxpayers
Having just gone through a lengthy budgeting cycle, resulting in a hefty 6% increase in annual property taxes, one could expect that Finance Director Raj Hayre, CAO Lou Varela, and Town Council would be downright frosty to the Ballenas track white elephant knocking on the Town’s door asking for another $71,200 on top of the $56,400 commitment made last year.
Especially when, as recently explained (LETTERS: Deteriorating school fields), there is NO usable running track available to students at Kwalikum Secondary School or anywhere else in Qualicum Beach.
Despite the dubious red flags surrounding the funding of this white elephant, in the Town Council meeting agenda for May 24, 2023, Finance Director Hayre, with Varela’s concurrence, recommends “That the Town of Qualicum Beach commit to providing $71,200 to the Oceanside Track Steering Committee in additional financial support for the final [sic] funding needs required to build a 6-lane running track at Ballenas Secondary School.”
SD 69 Board has already commenced the project
In a stunning presumptive act, a month earlier (at its April 25, 2023 Meeting), the School District 69 Board unanimously approved Trustee Elaine Young’s motion “THAT the Board of Education of School District No. 69 (Qualicum) support the final planning required and direct staff to proceed with the building of a 6-lane track at Ballenas Secondary School.” [emphasis ours]
Whose capital are they planning (assuming) to use for the project?
Three weeks later, at the May 15, 2023 meeting of the SD 69 Board Finance and Operations Committee, Elaine Young said that she would be stepping down as Chair [sic] of the Oceanside Track Society “to allow others to continue with fundraising efforts.”
Not only Is Elaine Young the primary project proponent, she also chairs the Finance and Operations Committee of the School Board. We can find no evidence that either she or the Board recognized this blatant conflict of interest. It is equivalent to a major developer being a Town Council member and then voting for his own development proposal.
A dangerous precedent
In the interests of sound stewardship of local taxpayers’ money, both the RDN and the Town of Qualicum Beach might be wise to refuse to release a single penny of their previous financial commitments until Elaine Young and her Track of Dreams crew show up with at least $750,000 of verifiable funds raised.
Otherwise, what’s to stop the next gung-ho gang from expecting the same incremental dispensing of taxpayer largesse?
Three years ago, it was ex-Qualicum Beach CAO Daniel Sailland and his wife (heading up Oceanside Youth Soccer at the time) campaigning for the Town to build an artificial turf field and clubhouse.
Now, it’s the skate boarders for whom the Town taxpayers have already paid for a feasibility study to determine how many millions it will take to feed that potential White Elephant.
Time to get a grip
This is a very unstable time for municipal spendthrifts to be tossing money at discretionary capital projects of any kind. We may be on the cusp of a recession, high inflation persists, cost of borrowing has jumped, catastrophic climate events are increasing both in magnitude and frequency, senior governments may soon be forced to constrain their recent flood of infrastructure funding.
In the mid- to long-term, there is reason to be concerned about the Town’s ability to meet its imminent financial obligations. The Town has not yet tallied our unfunded financial liability for replacing in-ground built infrastructure.
For example, we take our supply of drinking water for granted. But that water gets to our homes through an underground network that includes 26 kilometres of Asbestos Cement pipes that are roughly 50 years old. Anyone care to guess what replacement of those pipes will cost? Care to guess when replacement will become urgent? Will our entire savings account (capital reserves) be sufficient to foot the bill?
For the immediate purpose of rationalizing spending on recreational services across the District, stronger governance and leadership is needed to pull in the reins on ad hoc project-du-jour flights of fantasy like the Ballenas Track of Dreams.
The Regional District’s role
The taxpayers of the Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN), with some exceptions, collectively contribute significant capital funds for the construction and maintenance of recreational facilities that are open to and shared by users from across the “northern communities” in the RDN. These include Oceanside Place Arena, Ravensong Aquatic Centre, and several Regional Parks and trails.
The communities that comprise School District 69 are the City of Parksville, the Town of Qualicum Beach, and rural Areas E, F, G and H — the same taxpayer base that supports the arena and pool, built, maintained, and operated by the RDN, but located on land owned by the City of Parksville (Oceanside Place) and the Town of Qualicum Beach (Ravensong Aquatic Centre).
The RDN could play the same role in creating and managing new shared outdoor sport and recreation facilities in schoolyards owned by the Ministry of Education / School District 69.
In fact, the Ministry of Education’s policy position is that “School buildings and property are also valuable public assets that can become centres for delivering education and community services that meet the vital needs of the community. Available school space should be available for alternative community use; for example, early learning, child care services, adult and industry training education programs, family resource centres, seniors’ centres, public libraries, health care and therapy services, local social services, community recreation programs.” [emphasis ours]
The Town of Qualicum Beach, as well as the City of Parksville, already provide and maintain multiple playing fields and courts on their properties for shared public use. Meanwhile, School District 69 sits on unused and under-utilized (e.g. Qualicum Commons) fields, and derelict courts (e.g. Kwalikum Secondary School). READ: Neglected Qualicum Beach schools could become whole community assets with modest investment, Town collaboration.
If the Town wants to put its previous commitment of $56,400 towards track and field facilities in a school yard, then let’s focus on the needs and interests of students, residents and taxpayers right here in Qualicum Beach to see what modest improvements can be made to enhance Kwalikum Secondary School facilities.
But first QB Town Council and Administration will need to stop being a pushover, and say no to white elephants like the Ballenas boondoggle.