Ponoka County’s fire department will be spending some capital, while also searching for places to trim its nearly $1 million operational budget.
Fire Chief Dennis Jones talked about both items during his 2020 budget request presentation during council’s Feb. 25 meeting. Council, with both Coun. Bryce Liddle and Doug Weir absent, deferred any decisions until council holds its talks on the full county 2020 budget on March 20.
As for the revenue side, the two stations (west district in Rimbey and east district in Ponoka) saw about $25,000 and $441,000 generated in 2019 — far above the $300,000 estimate made in the 2019 budget.
Meanwhile on the expense side, both stations came in under their estimated budget.
Jones explained the west district wound up nearly $40,000 under its $250,000 estimated expenses, while the east district came in at $628,000 — almost $120,000 below its operations budget.
“We are looking to maintain the $250,000 budget for Rimbey and looking at reducing the east district budget for this by at least $100,000,” said Jones.
“We are confident we can maintain that number for the west side and chop some from the east side. However, some of this depends on call volume and if we get a bad grass fire season, expenses could go up.”
With the $20,000 budgeted for Bashaw to cover the far east side of the county, that puts the estimated overall operating expenses for the department at about $917,000 for 2020.
With a new tender having been bought and received last year for the east district, a new rescue engine will be purchased this year for the west district.
Council approved the purchase to a maximum of $525,000 — as well as $50,000 for new vehicle extrication tools — with funds to come from the fire equipment capital reserve.
Jones said there remains work to be done on getting bids from various companies for the new unit, which will see a specialized cabin chassis and customized cabinets.
“This is the last major purchase to get us on track for our capital replacement program,” Jones said.
“The unit will replace both the rescue unit that was sold last year and the current Engine 3 that will be near its 20 years of service when the new unit is scheduled to arrive in fall of 2021.”
With this purchase, the next scheduled replacement is slated for 2027, which allows time for the reserve to be replenished.
What is somewhat frustrating for the county is the arbitrary limit that insurance underwriters place on equipment, forcing rural municipalities to replace units that — even at 20 years old — are not even close to being worn out.
Jones explained they have to keep meeting that limit otherwise the county’s rating drops and that affects all residents.
“If we drop the rating, everyone takes a hit on their insurance. A downgrade could mean between $100 and $1,000 more for fire insurance,” he said.
“However, depending on the provider, residents who Fire Smart their property can get up to a 15 per cent discount.”
Regardless though, any resident that is more than eight kilometres from a fire hall are classified as unprotected.
“It doesn’t matter how magical a fleet is, they are considered unprotected. We have looked at putting a hall at the north end of Gull Lake that would cover both sides. But, it is impossible to get the roster size (minimum 15) needed to meet the requirement for an insurance rating.”
And unlike other counties in Alberta, Ponoka County doesn’t charge residents when the department shows up.
“If we started billing homeowners, then we would have to tell them since insurers add an extra charge for that,” Jones said.
Yet, Coun. Mark Matejka explained he pays that added charge on his policy.
“There shouldn’t be one,” Jones added.
You either pay for the service through taxes or it gets billed. A nearby county used to charge, but then residents stopped calling. So, a small grass fire ended up wiping out a whole farm and then there was a battle over liability. That led to the resident not paying and the county tacking that amount onto the tax roll.
Both Jones and CAO Charlie Cutforth agreed that is not a road Ponoka County wants to go down.
Jones added that residents should check with their insurer to ensure they are not paying for coverage that isn’t necessary.