SUMMERSIDE - The second phase of the city's controversial Smart Meter project passed by the narrowest of margins Tuesday night – a vote of five to four.Councillors Tina Mundy, Jeff Sullivan, Cory Thomas and Frank Costa were not convinced the city should move forward on the project. They raised the issue once again of seeking partnerships with the private sector to help defray the cost to taxpayers and keep the city from encroaching into private sector business.
Deputy mayor Bruce MacDougall and councillors Peter Holman, Jim Steele and Ron Dowling voted in favour of moving ahead. That set the stage for Mayor Basil Stewart to cast the deciding vote, approving Phase Two of the project.
The vote approved awarding bids amounting to just over $650,000.
Stewart said the city needs this project.
“We have to move ahead,” he said. “We’re living in a changing world and there’s no question, to have that facility (electric utility), this is an opportunity to expand it. This, in my opinion, is very important. I honestly believe in the project.”
Dissenting councillors, while supporting the idea of the Smart Meter Program, argued that the project could move ahead with a private sector partnership; freeing up valuable money for other issues within the city.
“I still have doubts,” Mundy said. “I’m still not 100 per cent sold on it. At the end of last year, our net debt was $89 million. At some point we have to take a look and say, okay, we have to continue to move forward but at what cost? Right now, my calls from my residents are about ditches, roads that are in bad shape, a downtown that is dying. Those are the calls that I get. They saying to me, 'why do you have to continue to spend money?'”
Mundy said the city has a lot of assets but noted substantial economic development within the city is lagging.
“So, I guess the logic of building a fibre network will make it all come together - I just don’t agree with that," she said. “I put the challenge out to the team to find a way that we can fill the ditches within the next two or three years, find a way to take care of our downtown." Sullivan said he understands the thinking behind the project but didn‘t accept the projected costs. It will cost $7.9 million to provide fibre optics to all the homes in Summerside. The project figures show that this would be funded over a 25-year period at an interest rate of 2.5 per cent. Sullivan said the interest rate on a project of that length will exceed 2.5 per cent. And end up costing more than what is being projected.
He too suggested the city try to arrange a partnership with a private company and if it doesn’t work out, revisit the project.
“I have voiced concerns about this project from the start,” said Thomas. “I’ve studied it and reviewed it 100 times and I’m still not satisfied with the business case. I don’t feel that all avenues have been explored and I do believe an opportunity still exists with the private sector to expand, to work to develop this project.”
Coun. Dowling said from a community development perspective the Smart Meter Program is a component on building onto to the electric utility concept.
He said it is well known how much value the city has in owning its own utility.
Dowling said he is fully in favour of partnering with the private sector when the opportunity arises and this particular issue falls in line when there are private providers available.
But he said there hasn’t been any firm figures given by either Eastlink or Bell Aliant to the project.
“In the interest of moving this project forward I am support the resolution.”
Costa said he believes the city is strapped with its investments in infrastructure and a stronger effort is needed to look at a private sector partnership.
Steele said he was in favour of moving ahead with this phase of the project but when it comes for funding in the next phase that the effort continue to look for private sector involvement. firstname.lastname@example.org