A corner unit on the fourth floor of a Hazel Street apartment building shows particularly bad damage after an overnight fire on July 29, 2021. (Eric J. Welsh/Chilliwack Progress)

Chilliwack council asked to hire more career firefighters at budget hearing

Commentary touched on slough restoration, flood protection, blueways, affordable housing and more

It’s the one day a year Chilliwack citizens offer input on municipal spending directly to city council.

Council got an earful at this year’s information hearing Tuesday night (Jan. 18) from more than 15 citizens who commented on the 2022 budget, both in-person at city hall, by email, and virtually.

Speakers touched on everything from the need for more career firefighters, slough restoration, flood protection, blueways, affordable housing and snow plowing.

The city’s online budget survey in the fall of 2021 saw ‘fire protection’ take the highest ranking, followed by: ‘policing’ ‘roads and transportation’ ‘flood protection’ and ‘parks and trails’, as the top five spending priorities for Chilliwack.

It was the first time in years the majority of Chilliwack respondents did not rank “policing” in the top spot, but instead marked “fire protection” as the highest priority.

That emphasis on additional firefighter staffing also carried through to the evening hearing.

Even though two new career firefighters for Chilliwack Fire Department are set to bolster staffing at Halls 1 and 4, along with a new fire inspector, several budget speakers, some possibly firefighters, pressed for a much higher number of full-time career firefighters to be hired, on top of the two budgeted for 2022.

Some offered comparisons with higher levels of firefighters per capita noted at many other similar-sized municipalities, such as Kamloops, which according to one speaker has double the number of career firefighters Chilliwack has.

Chilliwack Fire Chief Ian Josephson explained that Chilliwack has a “composite” fire department structure of 175 firefighters, comprising 40 career firefighters, and 135 paid on-call staff.

The staffing levels are based on community risk assessments, and the fact that most fires occur in downtown and Sardis, accounting for those fire halls being fully staffed, 24/7, 365 days a year. Josephson underlined the composite structure made the department “safe, effective and efficient,” and they were grateful “to all 175 firefighters who keep our community safe.”

Resident Roxanna Kooistra was back before council six years after she first stood at the 2016 budget meeting podium with her eight-year-old son Lincoln to ask council to prioritize slough research, restoration and salmon habitat.

“Salmon numbers have not improved since that time,” Kooistra said, and non-fish friendly flood protection infrastructure continues to age. She thanked council for the research on Camp-Hope slough restoration, and for introducing the blueways system of accessible waterways.

Kooistra reminded council members they could leave “a legacy” by further taking steps to protect vital salmon habitat, and Chilliwack’s natural splendour.

Resident Lisa Morry asked council to fund a new fire hall based on Promontory, 60 additional firefighters to reverse the trend of the community being “grossly under-served,” and for city council to add two city councillors.

Resident Eryne Croquet wanted to know where in the budget citizens could find funding for slough restoration, “not just building back but modelling the effects of climate change,” as well as flood proofing and habitat protection.

She asked if city officials would start saving for the $18 million to restore flow to the Camp-Hope slough system, but was told it wasn’t really affordable, nor in the budget at this point, unless senior levels of government came to the table with shared funding.

The tax increase council voted for was 2.99 per cent for 2022, which is the same tax rate increase approved in 2021. It equates to an average tax bill increase of $60 for most homeowners.

Resident Gary Raddysh made his annual appeal to council to levy absolutely no tax increase, zero per cent, rather than 2.99 per cent that it approved.

Resident Bryden Nelmes, a regular budget commenter for the past several years, noted that in past years it was often just him and resident Gary Raddysh in attendance at the budget hearing, and stated how pleased he was to see so many citizens taking the time to give feedback this year.

Nelmes asked where flood protection plans announced in 2014 stood in the 10-year financial plan. City officials said they are working with First Nations to finalize the alignment of new diking west of Young Road, and once they get it, will move on to flood protection design and construction, with some level of completion by 2028.

Resident Cody Chance suggested using city land to build more affordable housing, with projects sent out to tender to take the risk out of the equation for developers.

Resident Janice Balakshin spoke about the importance of bike lane improvements and maintenance, and some overzealous brush-cutting on Bell Road this past spring, which staff said it would check into.

Several speakers from Yarrow addressed a minor pickleball court controversy before getting clarification from staff that the proposal for a new facility at the Yarrow Community Centre site wasn’t set in stone as the location.

Watch the Jan. 18 council meeting online at chilliwack.com, under the ‘city hall’ tab, click the ‘archived council meeting videos’ to see the budget hearing. After the hearing was over council gave third reading to the budget bylaw.

RELATED: Last year’s tax rate increase was 2.99% too

RELATED: Survey last fall ranked city spending priorities

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