BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Passing the buck

It would be really easy to beat up on the City of Vernon over criminal record checks...

It would be really easy to beat up on the City of Vernon over criminal record checks.

After all, the city has decided to start charging a $25 fee for anyone who needs a criminal record check to volunteer, particularly with children.

Having to pay to volunteer is contrary to giving of your own free time to benefit the community. Because some people may refuse to help out over the fee, agencies who depend on volunteers believe they may have to absorb the full price tag.

“There are no provisions in the district’s budget to deal with this unexpected cost downloading,” said Bill Turanski, Vernon School District chairperson, in a letter of protest to the city.

The school district suggests the fee could cost it $25,000 a year.

Turanski speaks of downloading but everyone should remember that it is senior government legislation, not city bylaws, that requires criminal record checks for adults working or volunteering with children. The province provides absolutely no funding to Vernon or other municipalities to help cover processing applications.

According to city staff, the average criminal record check costs about $50 to research and issue, while more complex, time-consuming situations can spiral upwards to $500.

To continue with the theme of downloading, one could argue that’s what the school district is doing to the city.

“The school district does not pay property taxes and does not contribute to the community (through taxes),” said Mayor Rob Sawatzky.

That means the city doesn’t get any direct financial benefit from all of the land set aside for education (other provincially related bodies provide grants in lieu of taxes to municipalities for land). In return, the school district expects Vernon taxpayers to pick up the tab for its volunteers, including those who live outside of city boundaries in Coldstream and the BX.

Many non-profit organizations also expect the city to provide criminal record checks for free. But this could be interpreted as double-dipping as some get property taxes waived or receive subsidized rates to use recreational facilities.

The city’s pockets are considered deep but they aren’t when all of the financial pressures, including a $78 million infrastructure deficit, are taken into account. Higher costs mean increased taxes or inflated user fees, such as parking meters.

If the city made any mistake, it was not  informing the Vernon School District in advance that criminal record checks were no longer free. Given the teacher layoffs and the school closures of recent years, it’s unlikely extra cash would be available for criminal record checks. But, at least, the city’s move wouldn’t have been a surprise.

Volunteers are a valuable asset, providing the physical resources no government or social agency could afford to replace. Their passion for the community is overwhelming and the mentorship they provide to our young people is priceless. One would hope that the satisfaction they personally receive from helping others wouldn’t be influenced by having to pay $25.

In the end, the taxpayers of Vernon, or any jurisdiction for that matter, cannot be treated as a bottomless pit of cash. City officials didn’t ask to process record checks, it’s a task forced on to them.

Council has instructed administration to review the school district’s concerns and come back with a report on a possible resolution.

My prediction is city politicians will ultimately bow to the pressure and reinstate free criminal checks to avoid any possible negative publicity. Downloading on to taxpayers will continue.