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City hall moves forward with plan

Former mayoral candidate says residents don't realize they can oppose loan plan

Time's a-ticking for Royal City residents to comment on city hall's plan to borrow $59 million.

New Westminster city council announced in April that the city would proceed with construction of an office tower above the future civic centre and would need to borrow up to $59 million for the project to proceed. The decision came after the Uptown Property Group pulled out of the project.

The City of New Westminster has launched an "alternative approval process" in which electors who are opposed to the loan authorization bylaw must sign forms that are available at city hall. Residents who support the bylaw don't have to do anything.

"Nobody has heard about it," resident James Crosty said about the process. "People thought it (the loan) was a done deal. They have no idea they can actually say something about this."

Anyone objecting to the loan authorization bylaw must drop off completed forms at city hall by 4: 30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 7.

"Some residents are questioning the validity of a negative approach for the approval of this borrowing bylaw as well," Crosty told city council Monday night. "The bylaw approval process assumes that if you do not respond you are in agreement with the city borrowing $59 million. I am not sure people away during the summer would agree."

Crosty asked the city to amend the process to allow more than one signature on each of the forms being handed out at city hall, and to extend the deadline beyond Aug. 7. He is concerned about the deadline, noting the city's typical practice is to avoid dealing with contentious issues in the summer months when people may be away on vacation.

Coun. Chuck Puchmayr, who along with Coun. Betty McIntosh are the only council members to oppose the city's plan to build the office tower, said he doesn't have any concerns about the process. "Staff tells me our process is consistent with past practice and there is nothing out of the ordinary."

The City of New Westminster is able to proceed with adopting the loan authorization bylaw unless at least 10 per cent of the estimated number of electors in the city (4,528 people) sign an alternative approval process elector response form.

Crosty has obtained copies of the forms that electors must sign if they're opposed to the loan authorization bylaw and will make them available for residents to sign at his business at 239 Sixth St. between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays. The forms can also be picked up at the reception desk at city hall.

Mayor Wayne Wright said the city is working under the rules and timelines that govern alternate approval processes. He said the city has provided Crosty with forms and agreed to place the forms on the city's website.

"Everything in the business world is time sensitive," he said. "This fits in to the plans we have."

Crosty is frustrated that residents were given no option to say whether they supported council's decision to move forward on construction of the office tower at the civic centre site after the Uptown Property Group pulled out of the project. He said the $59-million loan works out to nearly $1,000 for every man, woman and child living in New Westminster.

Crosty, who lost his bid for mayor in the November 2011 municipal election, doesn't think the city has the right to borrow a huge sum of money and potentially leave future generations holding the bill for a "white elephant" without giving residents plenty of time to have input.

He said the city knew the Uptown Property Group was having second thoughts about its involvement in the project before the municipal election and voters should have been informed and been able to question candidates about their plans for the civic centre.

The Record has obtained a document that states Uptown Property Group notified the city on Oct. 31, 2011 of its "intention to pause its participation" in the project.

The office development will be built on top of the civic centre, which will be located at the corner of Columbia and Eighth streets.

The total budget for the project is $94 million, which includes $41.5 million for the civic centre, $12.5 million for the parking structure (to be used by the office tower and the civic facility), and $40 million for the office development.

Several years ago, the city negotiated to receive casino funds known as "development assistance compensation" that included $35 million for a civic facility in the downtown. Because the scope of the civic centre increased during the consultation and design process, the city recently sought and received approval to reallocate an additional $8 million in development assistance compensation (DAC) funds from other projects (Fraser River dock improvements and a crossing between Queensborough and the Quay) to the civic centre project - meaning $43 million of DAC funding is available for the project.

According to a staff report, the city's plan is to borrow up to $11 million from the Municipal Finance Authority for the city's costs related to the multi-use civic facility and parking structure, up to $33 million related to traditional capital programs, and up to $15 million to interim finance the costs related to development assistance compensation funding until the city receives those funds.

"You have to build it before you collect it," Puchmayr said of DAC funding. "I can certainly justify an urgency to proceed forward with it - they are building it right now. They need to bridge the DAC moneys that aren't paid out until completion."

New Westminster city council decided to proceed with construction of the office tower because it believes Class A office space is a critical component of downtown revitalization efforts.

The city has stated it will result in increased revenue from property taxes (about $50 million over 50 years), create an activity precinct in the downtown, bring new customers for new and existing retail in the downtown, and create up to 250 new jobs in the downtown.

"We are cautious about what we are spending our money on and what the results will be," Wright said. "I think it is going to be an extremely successful venture."