Business View Magazine interviews representatives from the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, as part of our focus on best municipal practices.
he Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen (RDOS) covers an area of 10,400 square kilometers in southern British Columbia’s South Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys. “The regional district form of government in British Columbia is sort of a federation,” explains Chief Administrative Officer, Bill Newell. “It’s a hybrid between Single Tier and Two-Tier government. We have six member municipalities: Penticton, Osoyoos, Oliver, Summerland, Keremeos, and Princeton. We have about 83,000 people – 25,000 are in our rural areas. The eight electoral areas elect one member directly to sit on the Board and our incorporated communities appoint their elected officials to sit on the Board. So, all the 14 jurisdictions sit around one table when they talk about the direction they want the regional district to go, and come up with a strategic plan as to how to get there. It’s a very good collaboration from everybody.”
Newell explains that the RDOS is a service-oriented organization, providing social, recreational, and environmental programs to its various communities, as well as infrastructure support. Newell enumerates: “We have about 80 employees; we have seven departments. Our largest is our public works department. We have nine water systems, two wastewater treatment systems; we have four landfills and we do curbside collection through the regional district. We spend a lot of time talking about environmental sustainability and how we can improve our infrastructure and our recycling programs. We believe that we draw people to the area by having good infrastructure and good recreation programs and facilities, and making it a good place to live.” Regarding community safety, the RDOS also oversees seven regional volunteer fire departments, as well as a regional emergency management program, responsible for emergency planning, response, and recovery.
The RDOS also owns and maintains many community assets, including parks, meeting halls, swimming pools, playgrounds, tennis courts, ball fields, skate board parks, libraries, and over 150 hiking and biking trails. “A new service we started is called PAT – Physical Activity Trailer,” says Karla Kozakevich, Chairperson of the RDOS Board of Directors. “We have a trailer that can move from community to community. It has different types of sports equipment and recreational activities that we can set up. It’s a brand new service that we’re offering by way of a Health Authority grant.” PAT allows small communities throughout the RDOS to have activities brought to their communities so that children and adults can have easy access to recreation at a shared cost by the electoral areas. PAT is packed full of great equipment such as disc golf, hula-hoops, bocce, badminton, and much more.
Kozakevich adds that during her time on the RDOS Board, a primary focus has been on the District’s drinking water and wastewater systems. “We have very old pipes that need replacement,” she explains. “So, we’ve been working on that over the years. Last year, we managed to obtain some Canada Clean Water grants and that really helped. Also, not all of our areas have sewage; we have a lot of septic systems throughout the rural community.” Those 2017 grants included a $497,000 Canada Clean Water grant for the Olalla Water System; a $3.68 million Canada Clean Water grant for the Naramata water system; and a $6.6 million grant for Skaha Estates & Kaleden sewer expansion. This year, Keremeos received $4 million to replace aging drinking water and sewage pipes.
The South Okanagan Similkameen is, biologically, a unique area of Canada. The RDOS has the highest number of species at risk and the highest proportion of sensitive ecosystems in British Columbia. In addition, its many wineries and vineyards, which draws tourists from around the world, depend upon clean water and a healthy environment. In order to support programs that focus on regional conservation, the District formed the South Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Program (SOSCP), a partnership of 50 non-profit, government, and First Nations organizations. Its mandate is to provide funding for conservation projects that are not the existing responsibility of the federal, provincial, or local governments. It is one of only three conservation funds of its type in BC and is the largest at up to $450,000 per year.
“We’re in our first year in doing projects under that Conservation Fund and we have a technical advisory committee of experts that will receive the applications of the different types of environmental work that can be done,” reports Kozakevich. “They help make recommendations to the Board of Directors as to which projects we should be supporting each year. That’s going to be an ongoing fund to help with environmental sustainability.”
The Conservation Fund is a partnership that exemplifies the environmental sustainability efforts within the Okanagan Similkameen area. The RDOS and its participating members believe that a healthy environment promotes healthy living in its communities. “We envision the RDOS as a steward of our environment, sustaining a diverse and livable region that offers a high quality of life for its inhabitants,” says Kozakevich. “It is integral for us to consider the environmental impacts in our decision-making process. Through good governance, we can ensure our unique environment can be enjoyed now and by our future generations to come.”
While the RDOS is consistently mindful of protecting the environment, it is not inimical to growth. “We have a regional growth strategy,” says Newell. “We look at all of our 10,400 square kilometers and we identify where our primary growth areas should be and where secondary growth areas should be. Obviously, we want to consolidate the major growth into our incorporated communities, but then, within the eight electoral areas, there are other primary growth areas, as well. So, we have a very strategic Board, in that they identify where they want growth, and then, we establish our official community plans and zoning bylaws to permit that.”
“Last year was our highest recorded growth in building permits,” adds Kozakevich. “So, we have quite a building boom going on throughout the whole Valley.” Realizing that growth is inevitable, the RDOS has developed a Transit Future Plan in partnership with BC Transit to better move people within and through the Similkameen and Okanagan Valleys. “As our population ages, it will be critical for local governments to provide public transportation options so their citizens can still move to services while living in rural communities,” Kozakevich maintains. “And as a government, we understand that economic growth and long-term prosperity are what matters most to our citizens, and that our focus is all about looking at a sustainable future.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen
WHAT: A regional district of 83,000 people
WHERE: Southern British Columbia’s South Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys
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