The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen (RDOS) is looking at spending provincial COVID-19 relief funding on additional office space, upgrades to the existing office space and technical upgrades.
At the Dec. 17 meeting the RDOS board approved sending the proposed plan for the $773,000 in COVID-19 Safe Restart funding to first reading at budget discussions in January. Additions and changes may still be made during budget discussions when the expenditures will be officially approved by the board.
The RDOS is also looking to spend the funding from the province’s Safe Restart grant initiative on audio-video equipment for more efficient video conferencing, costing $61,500; network and infrastructure upgrade costs of $85,000; board management software costing $14,900; a $30,000 facility needs assessment and an upgrade to the RDOS corporate office costing $125,000 including a $90,000 HVAC upgrade.
The board approved the plan which would see $206,600 of the total funds be reserved for unanticipated expenses where needed.
The largest portion of the funds in the proposal will go towards leasing additional office space in downtown Penticton for five years at a cost of $250,000.
The new space, the former location of Valley First Credit Union on Main Street in Penticton, could also house communications equipment and the RDOS could make use of equipment in the bank’s former data centre. The expenditure has been pre-approved by the province as an acceptable use of the funds.
The new space would address cramped conditions currently making work difficult for RDOS staff under COVID-19 restrictions. The RDOS has already committed to the City of Penticton to look for possible office space co-location opportunities for municipalities, but CAO of the RDOS, Bill Newell, said it will likely be 10 years before that would take effect.
“We don’t think (COVID) is going to last forever, I don’t think anybody does, but it’s certainly going to last the next six months or so. I think a lot of the improvements that we’re making now as far as space is going to be entrenched, we’re going to be keeping on with those. And the fact is we’re too tightly jammed in here anyway. It is too stressful for the staff to try and work in this type of environment,” Newell said.
All regional districts in the province received a flat rate of $300,000 for COVID restart funding and further amounts on a per-capita basis for rural and municipal communities with the RDOS receiving $287,420 for municipalities and $185,580 for rural communities.
Mayor of Oliver Martin Johansen asked for more information on COVID restart funding needs when it relates to impacts on budgets in rural communities.
“The COVID burning ban, for example, has impacted wood chipping budgets going forward and I think for me to make an educated decision and to prioritize the priorities it would be good to have all the things that could be funded from the COVID restart funding so we could look at them all and come up with a top ten, so to speak,” Johansen said.
Area C Dir. Rick Knodel agreed, noting a $5,000 increase in the regional district’s budget to run the Loose Bay campground is another COVID-related expense he would like to see addressed with the provincial funding.
“If we transfer all those costs to the (new) building, in effect we are actually subsidizing the building at the expense of our local taxpayers,” Knodel said.
The new building upgrades would relieve costs to taxpayers in all areas by reducing expenditures, according to Jim Zaffino, finance manager for the RDOS — who added further COVID-related expenses could be addressed by the portion of the funds earmarked for future additional expenses.
“That’s why the $206,600 is there, for issues that will be happening in the first quarter of 2021,” Zaffino said. “If something happens where we obviously see theres a reduction in revenue, or an increase in expenses, then we have it. But one of the things that we would need … I would need confirmation from the province to make sure that we’re spending the money and we don’t have to give it back. The board has a lot of time between the first reading and the third reading to take a look at that and look at how to spend that $206,600.”
Dale Boyd, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Times-Chronicle