Tiny train and new jobs lead to tax increase in Prince George, but not without debate

A tiny train dominated budget discussions in Prince George, B.C., this week, with some councillors questioning the $547,000 price tag to build a new storage shed for a 107-year-old steam engine — and wondering whether the city should even have a role in preserving historic items.

Council also agreed to create three new jobs at city hall for a combined total of $287,105, contributing to an overall tax increase of at least 2.15 per cent.

Looking for places to save costs, Coun. Kyle Sampson wondered whether the city should give up ownership of the Little Prince steam engine, originally built in 1912 for use in the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific railway.

"It's historic, but are we in the business of owning historic locomotives?" he said on Monday. "That's a lot of money."

Coun. Cori Ramsay agreed, saying the city should come up with a strategy for how it manages artifacts before budgeting over half-a-million dollars for the upgrades.

The train is owned by the city but managed by the Exploration Place museum, along with a team of volunteers who need to become certified engineers in order to drive visitors around Lheidli T'enneh Memorial Park every summer.

Those volunteers have asked for a new storage shed for the train, as its current home is difficult and at times dangerous to work in. The city is also looking for a home for a 1927 REO Speed Wagon fire engine that's currently stored in one of its fire halls.

Andrew Kurjata/CBC

Working with the museum, city staff have come up with a design for a shed that will accommodate both the train and the truck, while providing flood protection from the nearby river.

 Costs are also high because the museum is situated in a park that was once a village and burial ground for the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation, so any new builds require cultural consultations and archeological digs. 

Though the city is budgeting $547,000 for the project, the final cost is expected to be in excess of $1 million, with the remaining money coming from grants from the federal and provincial governments. If enough grants are received, the city's portion of the bill could be even lower explained Coun. Garth Frizzell, who chairs the city's budget and finance committee. 

"We're talking about a maximum," he told CBC Daybreak North guest host Wil Fundal.

Ultimately, council approved the cost unanimously, agreeing the train's value as a historic item and tourist attraction made it worthwhile. 

But, Ramsay said, she'd still like to see an overall strategy for artifacts put into place.

New jobs at city hall to support police, planning

There was less debate about the new jobs, with every councillor agreeing they would be valuable additions to the city.

One of the jobs is in the city's planning department, and the other two will support RCMP: a data processing supervisor and a forensic video analyst.

RCMP Supt. Shaun Wright said the new hires will help manage evidence gathered by police during investigations.

"We've experienced what I would describe as an explosion in video," he said. "We're seizing hundreds and hundreds and sometimes thousands of hours of video."

The Exploration Place Museum

Currently, Wright said, the police are either going through this video themselves or contracting experts to do it for them.

Having a dedicated staff person to go through video would both reduce costs and free up RCMP members to do more investigative work, he said.

Frizzell said the additional city planner is needed in order to deal with a record number of new building permits being received by the city and that, ultimately, it could be a "money making" position.

More tax increases could still be coming.  In February, the city will discuss hiring a climate change and energy use manager, as well as hiring more RCMP and bylaw officers to help improve security in the city's downtown.

 

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