The City of Port Alberni has taken heat in recent weeks for its management—or lack thereof—of some of its key assets.
Critics have taken the city to task for the way it has dealt with a number of problems at McLean Mill National Historic Site, from a million-dollar oil spill to an application to remove the mill site from the Agricultural Land Commission.
More recently a former employee questioned why a path beside Dry Creek has been left to deteriorate, and how the land use agreements that would allow city access to the land lapsed without city officials realizing the contracts had ended.
How do these lapses happen? How does a city look after all its assets, which range from shovels, firetrucks and trees to public art, PPE and buildings?
The city manages certain assets already with reserve funds: sewer, water, parks and recreation and equipment replacement. “With the exception of the parks and rec reserve fund, the others involve service fees and other contributions set at rates that fully fund that service over the long term,” city administrative officer (CAO) Tim Pley said. The parks and rec fund “wasn’t expected to fully fund replacement of parks and rec capital assets, but it was a proactive step in that direction.”
The problem has historically been taking on projects and not budgeting for maintenance or ongoing operation, he said. The Dry Creek pathway is a case in point: money was available, a path was built but nothing was built into the initial plan to keep the trail maintained. Canal Waterfront Park is another: the city has had to build improvements to the park into its budget gradually.
“That’s not uncommon in local governments; the federal government recognizes that,” Pley said. “They’re realizing governments are acquiring capital assets that they aren’t capable of maintaining: we’re not alone in that.”
Cities are required by law to track assets for 10 years, says Rosalyn Macauley, the city’s deputy director of finance and project lead for asset management. That has traditionally been an “age and replacement” method.
The federal government is now requesting municipal or local governments to fully track their assets, and provided grant incentives for cities. Port Alberni received $500,000 in 2018 to create a better asset management system and purchased AssetFinda software for $239,000 to carry this out.
The first step is to know what you’ve got, so the city is looking at the state of all its assets. The next step will be to create a process of tracking assets, from maintenance to replacement costs, then implementing the plan. Asset Management B.C. has a framework for municipalities to follow; the process could take another couple of years for the city to fully implement.
“It’s all a balance in how we’re going to start tracking assets in the future,” Macauley said. The management system will tie into the city’s strategic plan, and eventually into its five-year financial plan.
“It’s a very in-depth process,” looking at everything from pipes in the ground to the quality of every road within city limits, to what level of service the city wants to provide. The new system will take in maintenance and labour costs for any project or asset replacement.
“The difference is between what we have now, which is an age and replacement system, and we’re moving to what we call a full asset life cycle.”
Port Alberni is not the only city streamlining its asset management system: others have already undergone the process, or are in various stages of doing so.
Rob Dickinson, city director of engineering and public works, has been through this process with two other municipalities: Vernon, where he worked from 2006-2015, and Okotoks, Alberta from 2018-2020. He has experience working within an asset management system, and said Port Alberni’s team has also consulted the cities of Courtenay and Nanaimo, both of which have already implemented their systems.
The new program will eventually help all city departments keep track of their assets efficiently, and prevent some of the ball drops that the city has experienced lately—like the Dry Creek pathway, where the plan originated with engineering and public works departments, then parks, recreation and heritage inherited the trail but no funding or plan to maintain it.
An asset management plan will ensure all city departments have an adequate budget to take care of their respective assets, Dickinson said.
It will also help with future planning, decades beyond what the five-year financial plan currently does for the city.
“It’s using your funds more effectively in providing the level of service you want to provide to your community,” Macauley said.
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