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EDITORIAL: Solar-farm transparency still elusive

"Taxpayers and council need accurate information on the project, provided publicly, with full transparency and without requiring residents to seek it through access-to-information law, to make the right decisions."

For those following the solar-farm borrowing bylaw and ensuing debate in and out of council chambers, it's easy to see why some are incensed, and others are just plain bewildered.

Amid wavering transparency on the $33-million-or-so project, then strong messaging at Monday's council meeting from city administration officer Kevin Scoble that if the public wants its data badly enough, we'll have to send in Freedom of Information and Privacy requests for it, it's tough to tell whether the city's messaging is misguided, or tactical.

One thing is for sure, telling taxpayers the information their tax money has paid for the collection of will be kept behind the wall until the city can make a more compelling case for or against the project is not the least bit transparent.

It appears some members of council and administration are under the impression questions and criticisms of the project are due to misinformation. In fact, this is all the media and the public were given to work with — a proposal with flimsy financials and missing data.

Now in an effort to mitigate the city's cart-before-the-horse attempt, we are told this will all be cleared up once Phase 3 is complete next spring. 

The city told us in June the clean-up costs for about five salt-contaminated acres of the Badger Lands would be between $15 million and $25 million, rendering the land worthless, and a perfect fit for a solar farm, which won't require remediation.

After significant push from the public on those numbers, it appears now the city is questioning its own estimate, voting on Monday to devote $35,000 to examine the true cost.

What's missing, of course, is why that wasn't part of an initial examination of all of the land's potential uses, and also why the value of land to developers, who may not need to spend as much on remediation to build there, was not taken into consideration.

If the objective is to create a new revenue stream, and avoid annual property-tax increases of four to five per cent, it would make better sense for the city to look at the highest-value solution for those 80 acres, which will soon be surrounded by urban development, with Fowler Way planned right through it.

A small portion of the Badger Lands was developed as a temporary city snow storage site in 2006, when the city was growing into the northwest. City administration and the council of the time would have known this land would be redeveloped in the not-so-distant future, yet still invited the dumping of snow, salt, and other contaminants on a prime piece of property.

The province has been providing guidance around snow disposal and contamination since at least 1994, so it's safe to assume environmental considerations would have also registered on the municipal radar in 2006.

Knowing the actual cleanup numbers is pivotal for the future, or demise, of the solar-farm project.

Sky-high projected remediation costs have become a key argument in favour of building the solar farm on this site. If that's true, the real numbers will, and must, show that.

Taxpayers should also be made aware if the city incurred a significant financial liability by creating the temporary snow storage site with monstrous future remediation costs, instead of the lower-cost alternative of building a proper snow disposal site at the time.

If we discover a much lower figure after the $35,000 spent on examining the remediation costs, there are bigger questions, including whether the initial $15-million-to-$25-million figure — data on which has not been provided — was an arbitrary number used to paint a more favourable picture of the solar farm as a solution.

Right now, the project is still begging more questions than the city is providing answers for.  

Is the project a way to successfully manage a severely self-contaminated site? Will it actually achieve other environmental goals, such as greenhouse-gas reductions? Will it be a true revenue generator, to offset future tax increases?

Taxpayers and council need accurate information on the project, provided publicly, with full transparency and without requiring residents to seek it through access-to-information law, to make the right decisions.

Council voted to postpone a decision on the borrowing bylaw Monday night. In the meantime, we'll be waiting, with keen interest, on all of the answers the city has promised to provide, including whether another land use would be more lucrative for city coffers.