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February 23, 2011

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Over 4,700 residents participate in privatization town hall

PENTICTON—Over 4,700 residents from Penticton and surrounding communities participated in a virtual town hall about privatization last night. The virtual town hall was a first for CUPE in B.C. The radio-like talk show format used the latest available technology to connect with thousands of residents and address their questions and concerns “live, on air.”

The telephone town hall was hosted by Cameron Phillips, a well-known former resident of Penticton who shared with the audience his fond memories of growing up in Penticton “swimming at the old Edmonton Avenue pool and winning the Little League championship at Queen’s Park.”  Phillips masterfully emceed the hour long event.

Guests on the show were Blair Redlin, former B.C. deputy minister and current CUPE National research specialist, who outlined the pitfalls of privatizing public services and Laurie Larsen, CUPE 402 president and Surrey School Trustee who talked about the consequences of Surrey’s public pool being put into the hands of private operators. They answered questions and provided residents with a sense of how privatization could affect the community.

Redlin pointed to examples how contracting out doesn’t save taxpayers money, increases costs for users and decreases quality of services. He talked about how privatizing the South Okanagan Events Centre led to increased operating costs that caused budget problems for the City and increased costs for users with higher ice time charges and increased concession costs.

In Cranbrook, the privatized RecPlex created multiple problems for residents. The curling rink was closed by the private operator, with the City having to wrangle to have it re-opened. The swimming pool had water quality problems. Residents also ended up taking a large property tax increase to pay for the P3. The City was eventually able to bring it back in house and it is now being operated as a public facility.

And in Kelowna, pool users at the H2O-operated pool pay a lot more than Penticton residents did at the Community Centre.

Larsen spoke about safety issues and service delivery problems when the City of Surrey decided to privatize operations of the public swimming pool. Safety concerns included lack of safety training for lifeguards, no policy on working alone and no occupational health and safety meetings to deal with unsafe work practices. Prices were a lot higher until the pool was brought back into the public sector and it again became affordable.

During the telephone town hall, participants answered survey questions – and thanks to technology – got the results almost instantaneously. When asked if the Community Centre should be operated publicly, 90 per cent said “Yes.” Participants were asked what public services were most valuable to them. Results are: 28 per cent Community Centre and pool; 18 per cent City parks; 44 per cent Emergency services; 4 per cent public transit, and 8 per cent the public library. Seventy-five per cent of participants had used the services of Penticton’s Community Centre from more than once a week to at least once a month.

On-air callers concerned about loss of services if the Community Centre is privatized ranged in age from a 12-year old girl to seniors. Community groups who use the Centre also gave questions to call organizers prior to the actual call.

“People care deeply about the Community Centre and keeping it public,” says CUPE 608 president Patti Finch. “The telephone town hall was a great opportunity for people to ask questions, learn more and raise concerns.”

Residents from Penticton, Naramata, Okanagan Falls, Kaleden and West Bench were called and invited to stay on the line for the town hall meeting about privatization. Due to high call volumes, some callers left comments at the end of the call.


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