The Great Private-Public Debate

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The referendum will go ahead on the P3 debate

Article: Liam Fitz-Gerald – Contributor

If any issue this year has animated Regina residents, it has been the debate on the future of the Water Waste Treatment Plant. At stake is the possible implementation of a Public-Private Partnership (P3) model. The current plant will not meet new Federal and Provincial standards by December 2016, making improvements indispensable.

P3 protesters in Regina's City Hall.

P3 protesters in Regina’s City Hall. Source: Leaderpost

Yet the Federal government provided no additional funding for implementation. As its name suggests, the P3 model would include funding from both the public and private sectors to complete the plant. Fifty-eight million dollars would be allocated from the Federal government via the PPP Canada Fund. The City would cover a little over 47 million dollars. The rest, $118.3 million, would be paid for by a private company which would bid for the opportunity to have a construction and maintenance contract. The private sector would maintain sewage-plant functions and maintenance for thirty years. The city would reimburse the private company for construction and maintenance. Opposition to the P3 came from different groups, including trade unions like the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and concerned citizens like the Regina Water Watch.

On Feb. 8 2013, Regina City Council indicated it would explore a P3 for upgrading the treatment plant. Mayor Michael Fougere stressed that Regina would not receive Federal funding if it did not explore the P3 option. On Feb. 25, the P3 was approved by City Council vote. Thus, in 2014, construction of the upgraded facility would commence. Yet, there was uncertainty. Fougere felt that Ottawa was pushing the

P3 model on the city. Furthermore, Fougere was concerned about acquiring federal funds. Others voiced concerns as well. CUPE argued that the project would be costlier, citing higher interest rates for private sector borrowing. Concerns were also raised about the project’s completion time, unionized employees’ rights being maintained by the private sector, and the model’s potential to “undermine democratic accountability.” Above all, CUPE, on its website, expressed discomfort with the private sector having such power over a resource “integral to all life.”

In March, these concerns were addressed and resulted in the formation of the Regina Water Watch. On Mar. 5, a town hall was held, with CUPE national president Paul Moist, and Council for Canadians chair Maude Barlow, discussing the pitfalls of a P3. Barlow discussed the track record of P3’s on the world stage. She argued that mixing privatization and water systems ultimately meant that investors would win and consumers would lose. Moist criticized the city council kowtowing to Ottawa and claimed the issue was “about an absence of public debate.” That month, the Regina Water Watch was formed, composed of CUPE and concerned citizens groups like Clean Green Regina. A petition drive was launched on Mar. 22 with the goal of obtaining a referendum on the P3 model.

The petition picked up steam and by June there were 19,000 signatures. According to the 2011 census, the City of Regina had a population of 193,100. Under provincial law, 10 percent of a municipality’s residents must sign a petition before a referendum can occur. The City told the Regina Water Watch that a petition would occur only if they reached 20,000 signatures. The organization agreed to that request and continued to visit residents. In the middle of June however, the City emailed the provincial government. The City did not want to use the 2011 census to determine population. Under this threshold Regina was at 193,100. The city wanted to use population figures based on health card carrier data. The population would then grow to 207,429 based on health statistics. The petition would then need an extra 750 signatures.

This request came one week before Jun. 20–the petition’s deadline. The provincial government declined to grant the City’s request and the petition was submitted with the number of signatures being over 24,000.

Determination of signature validity was left to city clerk Joni Swidnicki. She argued that many names were invalid. Many individuals had failed to date the year in their signatures and as a result, they were discounted. On Jul. 19 the city rejected over 4,000 signatures because they were seen as not suitable. The petition numbers were too low and a referendum was rejected. Many residents were outraged, some feeling that democracy itself was being further undermined.

Yet, after the weekend, Mayor Fougere heard some of the outrage and called for a referendum. On Jul. 22 Council voted for a referendum over the P3 plant. In late summer or early fall, Regina residents will decide whether they want the P3 system or have the public sector manage the project.

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