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Two of the key faces behind a credible push for an Okanagan Falls incorporation study, RDOS Area D director Ron Obirek and Okanagan Falls Community Association (OFCA) prez Matt Taylor, didn't get all they wanted from the provincial government this week.
But they got enough to know they're definitely in the game. And that means OK Falls is closer now to an incorporation study than it's been in years.
The little community at the south end of Skaha Lake has been flirting with incorporation for decades. Those in favour say an incorporated municipality gets to call its own shots, elect its own representatives, and go for sizeable provincial grants that are unavailable to unincorporated regions.
Those opposed generally cite unreasonable tax hikes and encroaching government.
And lately, in the face of the closure of the community's only grocery store in September of 2019 and a clearly decaying downtown strip, the incorporation debate has once again caught fire.
In early 2020, a group of community leaders and businesspeople got together to form the OFCA. One of its goals, said Taylor, is to "move us closer to an informed discussion of incorporation."
Then in December of 2020, adhering to a recommendation from the OFCA, the RDOS board approved a motion to formally request the Ministry of Municipal Affairs fund an incorporation study and all the preliminary work that goes along with it.
And this past Wednesday they got their answer.
"There is not enough time to complete an incorporation study process before the general local election in October 2022," said the ministry reply.
But there was good news too. The letter, attributed to Municipal Affairs minister Josie Osborne, indicated the ministry would indeed dedicate $80,000 toward the "first phase in the restructure study process."
"Yes, we're very, very pleased," said Taylor Friday afternoon. "It’s a real positive step forward.
"You might say it's taken us decades to get to this point. This is a step that takes us much closer to an informed decision by the community."
According to Osborne's letter, the fully funded first phase would include a "boundary analysis," where a geographical border for the potentially incorporated area would be proposed, and an "analysis of service, with public engagement in Area 'D' communities on services and opinions on incorporation."
"It's moving us closer to a fact-based, informed discussion," said Taylor. "This will help everybody determine what area is being proposed for incorporation, and what form the incorporation will take. Is it a town, a village, a municipal district, and what services will be provided within that area?
"It does a second thing too. It starts engaging the community in the process."
After completion of the first phase, said the letter, "a decision on proceeding to a study that examines the detailed implications of incorporation would need to be made."
If the entire incorporation process is seen through its conclusion, the finish line will be 2023 at the earliest.
"It is my view that it should not be rushed," said Osborne in her letter, "and we should have a clear expectation that if the community pursues a full incorporation process, it would not reach a conclusion until well into the next local term of office."
And that's perfectly okay with Taylor.
"If you go back decades, maybe the process was a lot looser," he said. "Maybe you could just state your case and even proceed with a study and get it done in a few months.
"But people got burned, maybe sometimes there was pushback. Now they require a fairly rigorous process. And that's what we have to do. That's what this process does."
Ron Obirek, meanwhile, is just as delighted with the $80,000 provincial commitment as he is confident that his goal of incorporation will ultimately be fulfilled.
"The letter says that this is a serious matter that deserves attention," he said. "It means we have a governance review of phase one, followed by phase two, followed by a referendum, followed by a vote for the first council.
"We're going to be successful. There's nobody who has good information and knowledge who thinks that OK Falls should not be a municipality. It's happening, and this is the way you do it."
We asked Obirek why he's such a staunch supporter of incorporation, and he barely came up for air.
"What would incorporation mean? It would mean we've grown up. It means we have authority we don’t have know. Something as simple as a parking bylaw, or a subdivision approval authority.
"It means we'll have much more authority. It means when you don't like what your government has done, you can vote them out.
"And it means much more money because we'll qualify for grants we currently don’t qualify for. Just the COVID restart grant as an example. If we were a municipality in December, we'd have received $1.327 million. Instead, we got $86,900."
As for those who believe incorporation will launch taxes into the stratosphere, Obirek is convinced they're mistaken.
"People are afraid of a boogeyman what's not real," he said. "A lot of people who object have misinformation. They have a right to know what it will cost, and they will get that.
"But I can tell you that taxes will not go up in a material way any different than they have in the current system."
The incorporation study is just one of several initiatives the OFCA has been working on since PentictonNow's five-part Okanagan Falls series in September of 2020.
Another is Destination BC's recognition of the OK Falls Visitor Information Centre.
"The Community Association, working with the strong support of the RDOS Economic Office," said Taylor, "has obtained a significant boost for the community in that the Visitor Info Centre is now recognized by Destination BC.
"We're now listed on their website and we're included when promotional material goes out promoting the province. That will include new signage on the building and highway signage as well."
The OFCA, with the assistance of the RDOS, has also changed up the Okanagan Falls highway welcome signs. The new signs are big and colourful and incorporate the OK Falls moniker, "The Heart of Wine Country."
And finally, the organization is currently working on relocation packages. "So if a young family was looking for a place to live and came through here," said Taylor, "we'd have a new relocation package for them."
We'll have more news on the road to potential OK Falls incorporation as soon as it's available.
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