Lake Country Mayor James Baker says the district can afford to pay off its $5.1 million dollar share of purchasing the old CN Rail line without sacrificing the work it is doing on its infrastructure deficit.

Lake Country mayor defends decision to purchase CN rail line

With Lake Country's share to buy the old CN Rail line at $5.1 million, James Baker says the district can afford to pay

The mayor of Lake Country says helping to fund the acquisition of the old CN rail line from Kelowna to Coldstream will not affect the district’s plans to keep working on its infrastructure deficit, including needed improvements to roads, sewers, sidewalks and lights.

James Baker was reacting to questions surrounding Lake Country’s portion of the $22 million dollar price tag for the CN rail line, pegged at $5.1 million with half coming in the form of a loan from the City of Kelowna and the other half in a proposed tax increase for Lake Country residents.

“We are always looking at opportunities where we can increase the asset base of our community and this is certainly a major asset,” said Baker of the rail line, which Lake Country, Kelowna and the North Okanagan Regional District have partnered to try and purchase. “We are working on our (infrastructure) deficit by going after grants from senior levels of government. We couldn’t get a grant from the federal government to purchase the rail line but we can get grants to help fix up the roads.”

But Lake Country resident Guy Bissonette says the district is paying too high of a portion of the trail relative to the population of Lake Country and questions how many other capital projects remain on the books and will be delayed due to a lack of funds in Lake Country’s bank account.

“They are saying this is only $5 million but how may millions of dollars in projects that need to be done to bring things up to (proper) standards are sitting on the books because we can’t afford it,” said Bissonette. “I think it’s irresponsible to take $5 million out to spend on something we don’t really need.”

Bisonnette said Lake Country residents are bearing an unfair brunt of the total purchase price when you compare its population to that of Kelowna, where residents will not face increased taxes as the city will use money out of its reserve to pay its portion of $7.6 million.

He also said most of the eventual spinoffs from a proposed trail corridor linking the communities would end up in Kelowna as opposed to Lake Country.

“Where are these tourists going to be staying?” he said. “We don’t have the nightlife, the hotels or the restaurants. We’re not likely to cash in on the tourist dollars. Kelowna would.”

At next week’s Lake Country council meeting, the district is expected to officially move forward with the alternate approval process as a way to gauge public support and approve the tax increase. The tax increase could be voted down if 10 per cent of the eligible voters—about 900 signatures—sign a petition.

But Bissonette said the process is flawed.

“Where do you sign up, how do you get the people?” he questioned. “Are you going to go door to door? The alternate approval process relies on voter apathy to slam through what the council wants.”

Despite the concerns raised, Baker says it’s more important to acquire the land as an asset for the future and he said the proposed tax increase is offset by the importance of saving the line as a public corridor. He said the tax increase ($27 per year for 20 years for a single family residence assessed at $475,000) is modest when you account for Lake Country’s low tax rate. And he said the rail corridor is a major benefit for the entire region, including Lake Country.

“This is how you grow your community but if you don’t take the opportunity when it’s available you stagnate,” said Baker. “We aren’t doing anything we can’t handle with regard to making the payment and without having to increase taxes to an an exorbitant rate. There is always a need for people to have their say and that’s what we are all about.”

Lake Country council will discuss the issue for the first time publicly at its regular meeting Jan. 16.

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