Riot Act (Part Two)

Its been 3 years since I came before Trust Council and read the “riot act” (see 2020 presentation) regarding how the inefficiency of processing of development applications is costing taxpayers over $2 million a year (over 20% of the proposed 2023-2024 budget), primarily due to staff not following the long established cost recovery policy which stated, “(it) is intended to provide the principles by which cost recovery for extraordinary services beyond the fee schedule can be negotiated between an applicant and a local trust committee and implemented.”

So, in those 3 years, what has been done to address this “problem”?

In June 2020 the Director of Local Planning Services, responded to my claim policies were not being followed by staff, by, rather incredulously, stating that it was “impossible” for staff to follow the cost recovery policies…the very same policies which were written by staff, 30 years ago, in 1993, and which were specifically enacted by Council to ensure taxpayers would not be saddled with the cost of processing more complex applications.

Staff’s response begs a number of questions, none of which, to date, and to the best of my knowledge, have been either asked, or answered.

Question 1 – Why did it take my submission to Trust Council for staff to admit they were not following policies for 30 years?

Question 2 – When exactly did staff “realize” the policies they had written were allegedly “impossible” to follow – before or after Trust Council asked?

Question 3 – Subsequent to the response, did Trust Council ask its legal council for an opinion on whether the policies were impossible to follow as staff has suggested?

Question 4 – If in fact the existing policies were legally impossible to enforce, has Trust Council, over the past 3 years, acted to amend the policies to allow them to be used to protect taxpayers?

With all due respect, staff’s 2020 response does not pass the “smell test.”

We are asked to believe that for 30 years either:

(a) staff knowingly ignored the policies, or

(b) staff knew they were unenforceable and did not inform LTC’s, or

(c) staff were encouraged not to enforce them, or

(d) senior staff knowingly ignored the policy and/or

(e) staff were just incompetent and for 30 years didn’t pay any attention to policy.

I don’t know which of these is true…but at least one of them is, and Trust Council and taxpayers deserve an answer.

In any case, 9 Trust Councils, and all of the Local Trust Committees, from 1993 to 2020, were kept in the dark and uninformed, as the metric of inefficiency plummeted from an estimated 40% in 2007 to 7.4% in 2019. Conversely the burden on taxpayers continued to climb and is now, still, as I claimed, and using Trust data, over $2,000,000 a year.

This is not a minor problem. This is a major functional problem which should have been addressed long ago.

I have recently been made aware of a change in policy in June 2021, whereby the allegedly “impossible” cost recovery policies were conveniently repealed, and replaced with the policy to, quote “recover from applicants 100 per cent of the average cost of processing the development applications….Standard fees in Fees Bylaws are to be based on average processing costs, (and are to be) calculated as the product of staff labour costs multiplied by processing time (including Planner and administrative support). Standard application fees include estimated direct costs.” Unquote.

To date, Saturna and North Pender have not adopted the new fees bylaw, and are currently charging anywhere up to 45% less for the most expensive fees ($4400 vs $7800)

While the new policy sounds like an improvement on the surface, my questions now become:

Question 5 – The new policy is not a “directive policy.” In other words there is no requirement IN the “model fees bylaw” themselves for a Local Trust Committee to actually recover 100% of the average cost of processing an application. Given we already know the monetary consequences of having policies that were allegedly “impossible” to follow for 30 years, why do we now have a policy that does not concisely direct LTC’s to ensure the recovery of 100% of the average cost of processing?

Question 6 – I submit it is incumbent upon Trust Council to ensure the recovery of costs is actually occurring, and, there should be a reporting mechanism from each of the Regional  Planning Managers on a monthly basis, indicating where cost recovery, over and above the application fees, has occurred. Otherwise, who is auditing the process to ensure the new policy is actually being implemented, and/or adhered to, by Islands Trust staff?

In other words, where is the “worksheet” mechanism, used by staff, which will ensure the policy’s intention is being achieved on each and every application, because I’m not seeing it yet, in spite of the pre-existence of the 15 worksheets.

Mathematically, if all the planners are required to “recover 100% of the average cost of processing applications,” there must be a mechanism.

Using the 2023-2024 projected fee revenue of $192,000, and dividing that by $60/hour = 3,200 hours = 426 days = 85 weeks = about 2 fulltime plannners (including holidays/vacations). Mathematically, that should be all the planners that are required to “recover 100% of the average cost of processing applications” in ALL Trust Areas.

Which begs Question 7 – How much was actually spent on application processing in 2022-2023?
I submit the primary reason staff has been working at the reported less than 10% efficiency is, for whatever reasons, they are spending too much time on processing applications. There are two ways of solving that.

I have been dealing with the Islands Trust on a professional level for about 35 years, including my time as a developer, a land use planning consultant and a Trustee (2002-2005). It has been my observation from both outside, and inside, the organization that the Trust has had an ongoing problem with keeping planning staff. Salt Spring is a prime example. As a result of regular turnover, we have new planners, usually junior planners with little or no real world experience in planning, being dropped into a jurisdiction with a complicated OCP and land use bylaws.

My suggestion, given this is and has been an ongoing challenge, is to have Staff and the Local Trust Committees recommend to development application proponents that they contract with independent, land use contract planners to develop the staff reports necessary to process their applications. This is not an unknown or unusual event. Many applicants have previously contracted planners who, while being paid by the applicants, report directly to the Regional Planning Managers. The contract planners are certified Registered Professional Planners. The vast majority of these independent planners are well seasoned and are more experienced than the average Islands Trust planner.

The benefit of this direction would be three fold –

Firstly, it could save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, and quite possibly more than a million dollars per year.

Secondly, it would reduce the burden on Islands Trust staff’s time, which could free them up for dealing with all of the other non-application work. If the direction proves itself very successful, it would likely reduce the need for the existing number of Trust planners long term.

Thirdly, it would allow an applicant to proceed with an application in less time, given contract planners work like any contracted professional architect, engineer or construction contractor.

Thus, the applicants, the taxpayers, the Local Trust Committees and staff could benefit from this proposal.

My proposal will not cost the Trust or taxpayers a penny to implement. It would be implemented by staff simply suggesting to applicants they consider the benefit of saving time and money by using any RPP contract planner.

To assist the implementation, assembling a list of independent planners on Vancouver Island or Vancouver area, who would be prepared to work with the Trust would be beneficial to applicants.

As I stated at the outset, the underlying intent of the policy of cost recovery is to ensure that taxpayers do not have to subsidize developers, but rather that developers pay their fair share, while receiving fair value for service for the fees they pay.

So, I will leave you to consider and answer the questions I’ve raised and, consider the implementation of my proposal as an effective and efficient method of reducing the Trust’s budgetary requirements for the benefit of those who are paying the cost and salaries of the Trust – the taxpayers who, according to the Islands Trust Act itself, elected each and every one of you to represent their best interests.  

Thank you and I would be happy to respond to any followup questions you may have.

Eric Booth