County pushes ahead on fire front, yet still waits on town

Ponoka County approves half-million dollar operations budget for regional fire service, sets deadline on starting capital purchases

The wheels on the fire truck are going around and around albeit very slowly with still some potential of picking up another passenger.

Ponoka County council approved a motion at its last meeting of the year on Tuesday, Dec. 22 to bring forward an operational budget of $500,000 for their regional fire service as part of its 2016 overall budget, keeping the forward momentum going on establishing county-wide fire protection ahead of the expiration of the current agreement with the Town of Ponoka at the end of April.

In doing so, council gave Regional Fire Chief Dennis Jones the green light to go ahead with his plans to start getting the service ready to take over fire protection for the eastern portions of the county, which includes starting practices in the new year with the 26 individuals that have already signed up.

However, council did decide to hold off on having Jones implement a huge portion of his plan until at least Jan. 15. That was the deadline set by county council to hear back from the town on its latest proposed fire services agreement.

Chief administrative officer Charlie Cutforth explained to council that while residents and the people that have come on board to take part in the new department and structure need to know the county is committed to moving forward with the process that was started in November, they also need to grant the town time to consider their next step before the county starts purchasing assets and making other arrangements.

Reeve Paul McLauchlin agreed to the deadline, stating he just wasn’t comfortable committing to such a large capital expense before finding out whether the town was going to come on board, given the huge financial and tax implications they face if they continue operating their own fire department.

“I really do need more input and information along with knowing more about where the town is going before I really want to decide on all of this capital spending,” he said.

“We still have a mandate to provide service and if the town decides to come in with us, all the better. However, we do need to start making moves on making the transition prior to May 1 so we can be ready if we need to. I am more than comfortable with the plan Dennis has set before us.”

Councillors Mark Matejka and Bryce Liddle expressed similar sentiments, with Liddle stating, “We need to wait for the town to react to our proposal and then move forward.”

Jones’ plan, which was developed in conjunction with the consultant’s review of the current and future needs of the regional service, outlined a three-year operational budget that includes hiring a new full time district fire chief and an initial capital budget outlay in 2016 of around $934,000.

Both budgets are based upon the worst case scenario of the town not being part of the service and having to build a new department basically from the ground up.

That would mean purchasing a new rescue-pumper combination apparatus at a cost of $433,000 as well as a host of new equipment for firefighters, leasing of some apparatus, space for a fire hall and installation of a new county-wide radio communications system. Presently, the county does own a couple of units that are operated by the Ponoka Fire Department that would be moved from town if a new agreement isn’t reached.

“In the budget estimate, we went somewhat conservative on the revenue side and aggressive on the expenses,” Jones explained to council.

“This is the worst case scenario with the town not joining in and assuming the county takes on all of the highway calls come May, which will be the primary source of income for the service. The revenue also includes the payments as per the agreements with Rimbey and (the Summer Village of) Parkland Beach.”

What the budget doesn’t include are any payments to or from the Town of Ponoka on the currently shared assets in the Ponoka Fire Department, something Jones stated would be part of negotiations should the town choose not to be a part of the regional service.

“Ideally, I would prefer to buyout the town’s portion of the new rescue unit and take it, but that would still leave us with a need for that new rescue-pumper,” he said.

“However, with the revenue from the highway call volumes, that would nearly cover the entire cost of the unit within three years and with a lifespan for the unit of 10 to 20 years it would be a really good investment.”

Jones also mentioned that there would be some savings if the town didn’t come on board, explaining that the county paid the town more than $220,000 in 2014.

When asked about timelines for getting operations running, Jones said he could have a couple of apparatus along with gear for the firefighters arranged to arrive within weeks and there are already options on the table for a new fire hall.

As for the structural and operational review of the fire service done by consultant Ken Kendall, his report stated the service in place now currently has up to 60 volunteers with 10 t0 12 pieces of apparatus attending an average of 225 to 250 calls annually out of the two fire halls Rimbey and Ponoka.

The report stated those numbers are anticipated to grow over the next four years to between 100 and 120 volunteers in three fire halls as it is expected the Meridian Beach Fire Hall covering the Gull Lake area would be established by then should the community support be there.

It was also recommended that the service include a full time district chief, something Jones also requested in his operational budget, to not only look after the department’s resources in the eastern portion of the county, but to take on some of the existing workload surrounding inspections, pre-planning and a number of other duties.

When some councillors questioned why a second full time position was necessary, it was explained the position was already included in the organizational chart, but that due to the current and anticipated workload placed on Jones it was felt the post needed to be full time so as to take the pressure off what would be a demanding job for a volunteer to commit to. In addition, the estimated added salary of $70,000 would make little difference in the overall operations budget.

Cutforth also stated that the county will be re-evaluating its present fire services bylaw in light of the new regional service and anticipates there will be changes in what and how different fees will be in place along with what services will be charged for.

And after a bit of push and pull from some on council regarding the workload, McLauchlin punctuated the discussion with this comment.

“It really isn’t our job as council to micro-manage. We hired Dennis to create and operate a regional fire service for us and if he believes the workload and need for full time district chief, then we should simply give him his budget if we deem it to be reasonable and let him run it as he sees fit.”

The county is hoping the town will make a decision one way or the other at their next meeting on Jan. 12. As that is also the same date as the county’s next meeting, Cutforth suggested a special meeting could be held that week to discuss any options or motions that need to be voted on.