Turbulent could be one way to describe 2018 for Ponoka County.
With a big loss of tax revenue from bankrupt energy companies, combined with changes to provincial funding formulas and a less than wonderful economy in Alberta, the county’s wallet took a big hit. Toss the fire services and the explosion of anger over land use, the past year is one that Reeve Paul McLauchlin is eager to leave behind.
In his annual year-end interview with the Ponoka News — held Dec. 27 — McLauchlin acknowledged the many issues and challenges the county dealt with, plus what’s ahed for 2019.
The county’s financial picture remains steady despite of property tax write-offs that resulted in more than $125,000 off the books.
“We have had significant losses the past two years to the tune of about $2.2 million,” he explained.
“That has affected us. The advantage we always had is the county has always been a very lean operation. At the same time though, 60 per cent of our taxes are still paid by oil and gas plus a lot of our residents are involved in the industry.”
The fact the county has gone through a similar tough stretch before is another positive, according to McLauchlin.
“We have built some padding in before to counter that, as this isn’t the first time we’ve had this type of a recession,” he said.
“I do think this is kind of a perfect storm. We are dealing with factors greater than what we weathered before, but at the same time, we have still managed to keep our taxes low and not had to lay off any staff. We are pretty lucky, for sure.”
Another hit the county took was when the province changed its funding of infrastructure.
“We set up our operation so that if the grants cease, we can operate and it wouldn’t change anyone’s taxes. All it would do is decrease or eliminate any capital projects and donations,” he said, noting that’s where the funds for items such as the proposed field house are supposed to come from.
“We are built to weather this stuff. The latest report (from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business) showing us as fourth most efficient at using taxes shows really what our staff and administration do to keep us going.”
Land-use planning generated a lot of noise, even pitting neighbour against neighbour and bringing out the worst in many people on a contentious subject.
“We all want control of our life and a government making decisions that perceptively change the landscape, people get passionate and I respect that,” said McLauchlin.
“But, change is inevitable and that’s a reality. That Highway 2 corridor is our economic engine. Our future will be that and it will still be an agricultural community. Love it or leave it, that’s what’s coming.”
One other subject that still remains a painful part of history for some is what took place in March with the delivery of the Ponoka Fire Department service to the county. While not directly responsible, McLauchlin conceded the botched handover is still a black eye on them.
“The fact is there are people no longer there, that provided a huge amount of service to our community. It’s not like we’ve even moved on, it’s a sore spot,” he said.
“I want to make sure we have good fire services, but there is still that overarching issue — all of these people that are not part of the fire service that have the training, education and passion to keep our community safe. It’s too bad about what happened, I wish I could fix it. Hopefully, we can grow over time.”
For 2019, McLauchlin knows getting the provincially mandated collaboration and development agreements done with the two towns within the county will be the most important project council has in front of it.
“We have agreements in place with our county neighbours, the fact is both towns have shared services and have had conversations about this in the past. We don’t always agree, but we have such a reasonable relationship with the towns. We will get through this, as long we work for what is in common,” said.
The other important thing, which is really out of the county’s hand is attracting more investment to the province and not simply all about pipelines.
McLauchlin added it’s about getting products to market at the best quality and price possible while also supporting agriculture.