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Problem of numbers creates a number of problems

Paul Willcocks
Vancouver Sun
Saturday, February 14, 2004

VICTORIA - Forget the flap about whether Human Resources Minister Stan Hagen traded a promise of long-term care beds for campaign support.

Mr. Hagen will soon face much tougher questions about two files from his last job as sustainable resources minister.

In the current controversy, Mr. Hagen stands accused of breaking a promise to deliver 75 long-term care beds in return for help in winning the Liberal nomination in the Comox Valley. Michael Holland, a lawyer and staunch Liberal, signed up 508 new members, winning a plaque for his efforts. He's wondering what happened to the beds.

That's a good question. The Liberals promised to "build and operate an additional 5,000 new intermediate and long-term care beds by 2006."

They have been retreating in disarray since; almost half the promised "new" spaces won't be new at all. (The position of minister for long-term care vanished in the cabinet shuffle.)

The failure to deliver is a political problem for Mr. Hagen. People who believed the 5,000-bed promise could reasonably have expected 75 for their community.

But the idea that he made some deal is too far-fetched to credit, not least because he learned long ago to promise effort, not results.

The trickier problem could come March 26, when we should learn whether a developer in Mr. Hagen's riding was given the inside track and a bargain price on a great piece of Crown property.

The sale of the 16-hectare (40-acre) Lannan Forest to the Crown Isle Golf and Resort Community has already sparked an uprising in the Comox Valley.

Land and Water BC -- one of Mr. Hagen's responsibilities at the time -- reached a quiet deal last year to sell the land to neighbouring Crown Isle. The land wasn't advertised, no one else knew it was available, bids weren't sought.

The government and the developer agreed on a price, which has so far remained secret.

But the sale played horribly. The Lannan Forest, used as a park for 40 years, was criss-crossed with hiking trails.

Residents couldn't block the sale directly. But the deal was conditional on the land being annexed by Courtenay, and a petition drive killed the annexation.

That's when the government decided to try again, this time with a competitive bidding process.

Crown Isle won this month with a $1.1-million bid. A residents' group, along with the regional district, offered $621,000 to save the land for the community. Not enough.

Most taxpayers outside Courtenay will likely think that outcome is okay. The area isn't starved for parkland; the revenue is useful.

The big question now is how much Crown Isle would have paid for the property under the deal quietly negotiated before the public forced an open process.

Competitive bidding got $1.1 million for taxpayers. If the original negotiated price was less than that -- and published reports have suggested $400,000 -- then taxpayers would have lost, and the company would have gained.

The new deal closes March 26. Land and Water BC hasn't decided whether to release the terms of the initial agreement, but it's hard to see any justification for secrecy -- except to hide from scrutiny.

(As a result of the controversy the Crown corporation has changed its policy to require competitive sales in future. About five per cent of land sales had been handled like the Crown Isle transaction until now.)

If the numbers are bad, they'll be big trouble for the government.

The other big headache for Mr. Hagen and the Liberals started Friday afternoon.

Auditor-general Wayne Strelioff has decided to review a government decision forgiving $2.3 million in back rent and penalties levied on aquaculture companies that moved outside their tenures without approval. Land and Water BC cancelled the debts in the months after the Liberals were elected.

Perhaps the kindness was justified. But it is rarely a happy day when an auditor is looking for questionable practices.

The failed effort to deliver long-term care in the Comox Valley may be the least of the government's problems.

willcocks@ultranet.ca