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Apr 29,2011 The Now News

Plans to borrow $16 million to rebuild a fire hall in Port Moody went up in smoke Tuesday when council veered against recent referendum results.

At the April 16 referendum, 58 per cent of voters supported plans to borrow up to $16 million to rebuild the aging Fire Hall No. 1. Of the city's 21,551 eligible voters, 1,980 people cast ballots for a 9.2-per-cent voter turnout.

However, council voted 4-2 against borrowing the funds after gaining approval through the referendum.

For Coun. Meghan Lahti, the referendum vote was too close, since a margin of 304 votes separated the 1,142 who voted Yes and 838 who voted No.

"I believe that this referendum has left us with more questions than answers. Why did less than 10 per cent of the eligible voters in Port Moody choose to cast a ballot on April 16? That's less than 2,000 who voted and less than 310 people determined the difference and determined whether or not we would go ahead with spending $16 million," Lahti said.

"Why is this? Was it because they didn't know about it? ... Is the public simply apathetic? Were they in support so they didn't come down? Were they not in support? Was it the wrong time to hold a referendum because we have two other elections looming on the horizon?

"I don't know what the answers to any of those questions are. I can presume some of them, but I surely don't feel comfortable with proceeding with spending $16 million on a narrow margin of support that's been identified with such a small sampling of our population."

Coun. Karen Rockwell agreed.

"I believe that we have an obligation to the residents to have this sober second look and to do what we can to see some of these answers prior to saddling our residents with such a humungous debt," Rockwell said.

"It would be fiscally reckless of us to proceed. Only 304 people decided this question. People say that's democracy. They had the opportunity to come out and vote. Why didn't they come out and vote? That's the bigger question."

Coun. Mike Clay, however, took a different view and supported borrowing money to build the fire hall.

"I'm not sure how something can get that far and not have an understanding by people on council and people in the community. I don't know how somebody could say they weren't aware we were having a referendum," Clay said. Like Clay, Coun. Bob Elliott stood behind the results of the referendum.

"There isn't a taxpayer in this city who didn't know this was going on. We had town hall meetings. It's in the newspapers. It was our local focus. Every taxpayer and citizen got this, and for someone to say 'I didn't know anything about it,' I find that totally wrong," Elliott said.

"I'm really, really frustrated and really disappointed in the nine per cent [voter turnout]. I think that that's an embarrassment, but I think it's the apathy out there that causes that ... But the people who voted voted, and I will not take that away from them."

Meanwhile, Mayor Joe Trasolini said he would like to refocus the project.

"I would immediately set up a committee of council and staff to take a look at location, size, shape and form of the fire hall so that we can make sure that we are building an appropriate facility to meet the needs of the fire department of Port Moody in the future but at the same time being very respectful of the taxpayer," Trasolini said. "I am not comfortable going ahead on this type of a vote to borrow up to $16 million for something that I haven't had the opportunity of taking a second look. So I'm not going to vote in favour of it."

Trasolini, Lahti, Rockwell and Coun. Gerry Nuttall voted against implementing a borrowing bylaw, while Clay and Elliott voted in favour. Coun. Diana Dilworth was absent from the meeting.
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