'Robbing Peter to pay Paul': B.C. government funds $69M forestry support program by cancelling rural grants
Applicants to Rural Dividend Fund told no money available; Program suspended indefinitely
The B.C. government is redirecting money earmarked to help rural communities across the province into a new forest worker support program in the province's Interior, and the news has left some small-town leaders wondering if the decision is more about optics than actually supporting B.C.'s resource communities.
"They're robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb, whose city had applied for a $500,000 rural dividend grant to build a water treatment plant.
"They screwed up."
The B.C. Rural Dividend is a $25 million provincial fund aimed at helping communities of 25,000 people or less "strengthen and diversify their local economies," according to the B.C. Government's website. Eligible projects range from skills training to infrastructure to strategic planning.
But this year's applicants have been told they won't be getting any money, as the province spends $69 million on newly-announced forest worker support programs in the B.C. Interior.
"Funding this essential programming for impacted workers has required that we temporarily reallocate funding in the Rural Dividend Program," wrote Forests Minister Doug Donaldson, in a letter to the local governments that had applied for money.
The letter states the program has been "suspended until further notice in order to support workers and communities in the Interior" and that "applications submitted in the 2019 intake period will be retained for vetting and funding consideration at a future date."
Hundreds of workers laid off
Hundreds of forestry workers have been laid off this year as mills across the province have closed or curtailed operations due to a combination of market forces, the end of mountain pine beetle harvested wood and reduced harvests as a result of devastating wildfires.
Donaldson's letter outlines more details about the forestry worker support program, which he announced in Prince George last week. It states communities in the Interior facing a permanent mill closure will receive $100,000. Those facing an indefinite closure will receive $75,000 and those facing shift reductions will be able to access a pool of funding to support impacted community members.
Cobb said the money Williams Lake is eligible for through the forestry program pales in comparison to what it would have been able to accomplish with money from the rural dividend.
Forestry funding only for select communities
Steve Forseth is a director with the Cariboo Regional District, which had applied for $100,000 to create trails in the region. He said he's surprised the NDP was willing to cancel Rural Dividend funding, because so many local governments rely on it for important community projects.
"It's unfortunate the province has chosen this path to try and deal with forestry by clawing back at rural dividend," he said, arguing it would have been more appropriate to fund this year's applicants before suspending the program.
Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom was hoping to receive funding for a downtown improvement plan but is now unsure if her community will get any support from the province in efforts to diversify its local economy.
Although Port McNeill relies heavily on forestry, it is on Vancouver Island — not the B.C. Interior, where Donaldson says worker support funding is being directed.
"I'm not against helping the B.C. Interior sector. They are in crisis," she said. "But we have our own issues."
Listen to Wickstrom's full interview with CBC's Daybreak North:
Wickstrom questioned whether the government would be so willing to take money out of a fund aimed at more urban centres.
"I don't think [this] would have happened in the cities, because that's where most of their votes come from."
CBC News has contacted Donaldson's office for comment but has yet to receive a response on the issue. In his letter to communities, Donaldson said he recognizes the importance of the Rural Dividend Program and that provincial staff are looking for alternative funding sources to support economic development and diversification.