Ed. note: this column is half of a he-said/she-said exploration of the current conflict between the RDCK and the City of Castlegar. For a glimpse of the flip side of this particular coin, check out Always Right by Rob Leggett. And don't forget to share your views and comments – your opinion is always welcome!
This conflict between the City of Castlegar and the Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK) over Celgar's unpaid taxes (see Zaitsoff sets deadline for city and City/RDCK at odds over Celgar tax bill, The Castlegar Source, July 27) actually had me turning to my dictionary, questioning my own understanding of the situation.
Turns out, I had the definition of extortion right, according to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English, “to obtain (money, secrets, etc.) by force or threats or intimidation.”
I took Celgar to task in a previous column for what I called “guerilla warfare” as they withheld millions of dollars in taxes owed the city, thus holding the city hostage economically, to get their way.
I now levy a similar charge against RDCK Area J Gordon Zaitsoff – only in this case, it's my opinion that he's practicing extortion.
If Zaitsoff really feels his consituents would be best-served by taking Celgar out of city taxation boundaries and incorporating it, instead, into the RDCK, then he should pursue that goal regardless what the City of Castlegar does, or does not, do. In fact, if he feels it's the right thing for him to do, he should have be lobbying in that direction all along.
But that's not what he said, at least not to me.
He was very, very clear in his conversation with me ... he said if the money owed the RDCK from Celgar's tax bill ($375,000) is not paid by Aug. 1, then he will go to the rest of the district board and recommend they pursue dialogue with Mercer International regarding a change in taxation jurisdictions.
Does that not sound like a threat to obtain money?
It does to me.
I don't feel the same way about Zaitsoff's contention that the Complex and aquatic centre will take a serious hit if the RDCK has to go without the $375,000 – that's a natural consequence of the situation. Less money means less services. I get that.
But is it a natural consequence of a $375,000 budget shortfall that the RDCK will attempt to rob the city of its primary taxpayer? Hardly.
If you ask me, it's a threat, plain and simple.
Truth is, I'm convinced it's also an empty threat ... the province would never make such a politically moronic decision that would set precedence across B.C., effectively crippling untold numbers of B.C. municipalities currently reliant on primary industry – and at the same time costing themselves (elected officials) a huge portion of the powerful urban vote for the sake of a much smaller rural electorate.
Furthermore, as I understand the Community Charter and the Local Government Act, there's simply no mechanism by which a company can collude with a regional district to cut a city completely out of the decision-making process when it comes to taxation within the city's own boundaries, short of physically relocating the company or having the province re-write the legislation altogether.
But none of that's the point.
I grew up believing in the system, convinced that the people running the show had some idea what they're doing and how to do it. You'd think more than a decade of journalism would've taught me otherwise, would've innoculated me against disillusionment when the opposite, in fact, proves to be true ... but I still sometimes get blindsided.
Such is the case today.
Most Kindergarden students understand the merit of co-operation, of neighbourliness, of working together toward a common goal – why don't our political leaders?
My 11-year-old could've told Zaitsoff it's wrong to threaten people to get what you want, or to kick someone when they're down, and that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar – but why should there ever be a need for him to do so? Why doesn't Zaitsoff get that himself?
Where did all the grown-ups go?
To me, Zaitsoff's threat looks like a blatant power grab – who wouldn't want a $2.8 million taxpayer under their jurisdiction? And what better time to do it than when the city is already beseiged by a $2.8-million budget shortfall and a legal battle with Celgar?
What he's not telling you is that most of that money won't stay in the region – the RDCK has nowhere near the range of services and authority the city boasts – instead, much of it will go to Victoria, where strangers will make the decisions on major local concerns like roads, policing etc.
And did he stop to think about what happens if his little machination fails, as I believe it is doomed to do?
The city and the regional district will have to work in concert and cooperation long after the $375,000 has faded into irrelevance – but how the situation has been handled won't be forgotten as easily as the cash will.
How successful will this 'collaborative' relationship be when the expectation is, when the chips are down, that the only thing anyone can trust is that each party will serve its own interests regardless the cost or ethical concerns involved? How functional is a partnership without any form of commitment?
Furthermore, any 'dialogue' between Mercer International, the province and RDCK to cut Castlegar out of the loop could also seriously undermine talks between the city and Celgar (already under way as of Friday). Since a solution brokered by the city and Celgar seems the more likely avenue to succeed (as compared to Zaitsoff's plan), is hampering that process in the best interests of the residents of the regional district?
I should think not.
The success of those talks may well be the determining factor in whether Celgar remains open and operating here at all – and as Zaitsoff himself pointed out, Celgar employs many regional residents as well as boosting the regional economy through its own operations and through wages spent locally by its employees.
Countermining those talks has the potential to hurt everyone – Zaitsoff's constituents included.
When it comes right down to it, I think the bulk of the end result will be decided by the B.C. Supreme Court, where Celgar filed suit against the city. And no matter the outcome, whether Celgar walks away happy or just walks away, where does it leave us, the citizens, the taxpayers, rural and urban alike?
It leaves us with two adversarial governing bodies that have no working relationship, no trust, and little potential for cooperation.
No one wins.
And the saddest part of all is that my little boy could've told Zaitsoff what's important here – that it's better to build relationships and cooperate than to bully and threaten to get your way.
I can only hope the rest of the RDCK board of directors will show the same level of wisdom we expect from grade-school children.