Deliberations on Ponoka’s municipal budget began with questions, lots of questions.
The Town of Ponoka administrative staff sat down on Nov. 1 and 2 at the Kinsmen Community Centre in a public meeting to provide the mayor and council with some answers as to numbers outlined in the 2017 draft budget.
And there were no shortage of questions asked by all of those on council during the nearly eight hours spent on the issue Nov. 1, with most coming regarding the dollars allocated to protective services — RCMP, fire and the town’s peace officer program.
Ponoka Fire Department Chief Jamie Wilkinson was quizzed on whether the department needs so many members now that its coverage area includes only the town as well as looking for some justification for the amount of spending that is proposed.
More specifically, Coun. Carla Prediger looked at the new standby policy council passed recently and asked if residents are getting the best bang for their buck while Mayor Rick Bonnett asked if there is a need to have so many firefighters. Bonnett also asked about what can be done to recover some costs for certain calls.
Both Wilkinson and CAO Albert Flootman provided some answers.
Flootman pointed out that the $67,000 final payment to Ponoka County for the capital buyout due to the split earlier this year. That, along with the revenue lost from the department no longer attending calls on Highway 2 is what makes up the $110,000 increase in the fire department budget projection for 2017 (proposed at $358,000) when compared to the 2016 numbers (at $238,000).
Regarding the issue of how large the department is, Wilkinson explained the department must meet a minimum standard of 15 members when attending a structure fire and, that on a volunteer department, it is expected that not everyone will be available all of the time. However, he added that the department is working on cutting costs where it can and looking for other revenue sources.
“We are saving on the training of our members and lowering those costs with our ability now to provide a lot of in-house training,” Wilkinson said.
“Albert and I have also spoken on that we should be billing back the costs for accidents to the insurance companies, but we are also seeing a lot of false alarm responses so there is a need for a bylaw to address that.”
Wilkinson suggested other municipalities charge after a certain number of false alarms as well as for fire inspections that can take between two and eight hours depending on the size of the building. Putting some of that cost into the business licence plus the bylaw would go a ways to recouping some of that money.
On the topic of policing, council was curious if there could be some cost savings made and why the revenue for the peace officer isn’t meeting its expectations.
Sandra Lund, director of corporate services, pointed out that council wanted to take two years to educate the public on the various bylaws through the peace officer. However, she added Sgt. Kyle Koller has written a significant number of tickets this year, though that revenue can’t be reflected in the numbers until a ticket is paid.
On the RCMP front, the question was raised if Ponoka could go the way of Lacombe — having its own police department — but Flootman explained many municipalities are now going back to the RCMP model as the biggest issue has become access to resources.
“The RCMP have all of the resources available at K-Division, whereas municipal departments need to piggyback with other forces like the RCMP when it comes to high profile or large investigations,” he said.
Bonnett and Coun. Terri Underhill also wondered about the economic feasibility of a new building, with Flootman stating the RCMP would still pay to lease the space needed though the town and the province would be responsible for some of the other building costs if it was expanded. This would include space for the integrated traffic unit or other services.
Communications, specifically advertising, was a concern, with Prediger asking how staff can judge that spending is giving the town any value, while Gulka wondered if cutting back has been looked at.
Communications manager, Sandra Smith, explained the recent survey pointed out a large portion of residents get their information from the town page in the Ponoka News and that going from a full page ad to a half-page is being done when warranted. As well, more information is being posted online as much as possible.
Public works and the utilities department was another area of interest for council, with Underhill wondering if there is a chance of cutting back on the overtime and standby costs.
Flootman stated there is a need in utilities and public works to have qualified people available when something happens and the current contract has a certain amount built into it, but that can’t be significantly reduced unless a change can be negotiated.
Ponoka News reporter/photographer Jordie Dwyer is a volunteer firefighter for the Ponoka Fire Department.