$55M flood protection fund could address Abbotsford’s concerns

Finance Minister Mike de Jong says city drew attention to flood danger.

The banks of the Fraser River near Matsqui are eroding

Abbotsford is expected to be “front and centre” in accessing $55 million of provincial funding for flood protection, Finance Minister Mike de Jong told The News this week after delivering the 2016 B.C. budget to the legislature.

De Jong, who is also the MLA for Abbotsford West, credited the city’s mayor and council for highlighting the need for improvements to dikes and other measures to forestall a catastrophic flood.

A study commissioned by the city last year showed the Fraser River is chewing into its banks in Matsqui. If the pattern continues, it could trigger a flood that would do billions of dollars of damage to Abbotsford. Fixing the problem, the study found, would cost $8 million.

“I think we are playing with fire,” Mayor Henry Braun said after the release of the report. At the time, Braun said the solution would have to be funded by more senior levels of government, and Tuesday’s budget suggests the province is ready to commit money to such a plan.

On another front, housing prices continue to skyrocket around the Lower Mainland, and De Jong announced Tuesday that new homes worth up to $750,000 will be exempt from the province’s property transfer tax. De Jong said the move will save homebuyers thousands of dollars, and that applying the tax exemption only to new homes is intended to spur more development and increase the supply of houses.

Asked about continuing challenges at Abbotsford Regional Hospital, where Fraser Health will be cutting in-patient beds this spring, De Jong said the province continues to increase health care funding, with another $500 million in this year’s budget. However, he cautioned that Abbotsford’s growth will continue to apply pressure on hospital resources.

Abbotsford’s aerospace industry also was featured in de Jong’s budget speech, as he highlighted Cascade Aircraft and Conair Aviation’s work while re-announcing the province’s $5 million of funding for the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, which is being delivered in $1 million instalments over five years.

Prior to the budget, the B.C. government committed to put an additional $335 million into social housing projects over the next five years, most of it from transfers of property to non-profit societies.

Premier Christy Clark called the plan “the largest single social and affordable housing investment in the province’s history.”

The provincial government’s plan to invest directly in new social housing is a change from BC Housing’s past policy to focus on rent subsidies rather than direct spending on social housing. The province currently pays rent assistance to nearly 30,000 low-income seniors and families, and funds another 41,000 in independent social housing. BC Housing said it will be issuing requests for proposals to partner with municipalities, non-profit societies and other community groups throughout B.C.

The opposition NDP, however, said the plan is a reduction in the commitment made in the government’s 2015 plan and may see some previously subsidized affordable units rented out at market rates.

– with files from Tom Fletcher