The future of fire services in the Town of Ponoka is about to change but how that will look for residents remains unclear.
Town council is expected to vote Tuesday, Jan. 12 on whether to have its own seperate fire services or join with Ponoka County on a regional system. Ramifications of either decision are difficult to determine as town councillors have been quiet on questions related to the upcoming decision.
Coun. Sandra Lyon is the main council representative for the protective services committee and she declined to comment except to say the CAO or the finance department would have more information on cost implications.
“We do not have anything like that at this time, so please be patient while we work through the information so that we can make decisions that are in the best interest of our ratepayers as there is still information to come,” said Lyon.
Council has had since May to investigate those details after the county served notice of its intention to split.
Looking at regional or separate fire services
Ponoka County has given town council until Jan. 15 to either join in a regional system or separate. A proposal has been presented to the town, although its contents have not been made public.
It is believed the proposal states the town would have to pay for 25 per cent of the cost of operations and 50 per cent of capital purchases for town equipment. Under the current agreement, Ponoka County pays for half the operations, including staffing and training costs, and has provided funds for the development of the current fire hall and some equipment. Ponoka County paid the town $161,500 in 2014.
If the Town of Ponoka joins the regional system, which includes the Town of Rimbey and the Summer Village of Parkland Beach, operations would be run by the county with personnel and costs falling under the county umbrella. Presumably, the proposal sets guidelines to run the existing fire hall, and for a chief and volunteer firefighters to be part of the East Ponoka County Fire Department, which should include the same areas of coverage that the PFD is currently responsible for.
Ponoka County did offer a better deal than this a few months ago similar to the Rimbey agreement, but that was declined.
If the town separates, the 1994 agreement states the town would have to pay out Ponoka county for capital costs at two sevenths of the value of land and the value of the building equal to the portion of two bays at prevailing appraisal rates. There is also the consideration of capital equipment.
It is believed Ponoka County owns both tanker trucks and a pumper truck in the fire hall, which would call for new equipment purchases to be made by the town. Indeed, during budget deliberations, town council approved $500,000 for the purchase of a new pumper truck, although no spending is allowed until an agreement can be made with the county. As there is no fire hydrant system on town annexed land by Highway 2, the town may also have to buy a tanker truck to deal with structure or grass fires in town boundaries.
The county also owns an ATV firefighting unit.
The town owns two new pickup trucks, one for the fire chief and the other as a second unit, a ladder truck and an aged pumper truck. There is a new rescue truck, split 50-50 between the town and county that would need to be dealt with.
What remains unclear is how much the town would have to pay out to Ponoka County if the separation becomes a reality, but the cost could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in addition to the new pumper truck set for in the current interim budget. In that case, the town will also have to bear the full costs of any Ponoka Fire Department operation.
Service areas have changed
While the PFD currently covers Highway 2 calls, that jurisdiction has been transferred to Ponoka County and unless the town joins the regional system the Ponoka East County Regional Fire Department is expected to take those calls at the end of April.
And the county is ready.
Ponoka County regional Fire Chief Dennis Jones reported to county council Dec. 22 there are 26 volunteer members to start practices in the new year. He also told county council there is a need for a district chief.
If the town separates, the PFD is poised to reduce its calls by approximately two thirds. As was stated in a recent Firestorm audit on the PFD, the department takes approximately 200 calls with one third in the county and the other third on Highway 2.
Residents are still in a position to provide council with feedback. Council has set a public forum time at the start of its regular meetings and their next one is Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 6 p.m. in the Ponoka County office. Town council will make the decision at the same meeting.
***A correction was made to the story, which originally stated the Summer of Village of Gull Lake is included in the plans when it should have stated the Summer Village of Parkland Beach. We regret the error.