There will be two separate fire services in the Ponoka area after town council voted by 4 to 3 to refuse to be part of the county-led regional fire services.
Council’s decision was made Tuesday, Jan. 12 during the regular meeting where each town councillor weighed in on the decision. For the first time in many weeks, the gallery for visitors was full with members of the Ponoka Fire Department (PFD) and their spouses as well as residents who wished to see how council would decide.
Ironically enough, the decision was made in county council chambers while the East Ponoka County Fire Department was training in the next room.
Prior to the decision no fewer than five people, including Justin Graham, chairperson of the Economic Development Board, spoke against separation with the main concern being an increased cost to taxpayers. The EDB sent a letter to the town concerned with some conflict of interest with town representatives rumoured to be related to fire department members.
“As an elected official, you must remove the personal ties from the decision and do what is best for the taxpayers,” states the letter.
One resident suggested there would be some benefit not only to the region but to fire department members. “I wish that you would support the town sign on with this regional fire services agreement with the county,” said resident Rob Joss.
Les Oberst added his comments stating that the town and county must work together and a regional fire service agreement would be no different.
“I think it would be an illogical move to separate from the county, financially and otherwise,” added Frank Bergman.
Jim Hamilton added that safety of residents would be the same regardless of one or two fire departments but he suggested councillors should be prudent in their decision. He added that personal issues needed to be removed when making a decision.
“There will always be personality conflicts with any job and that should be left to management to solve,” said Hamilton.
Councillors’ perspective with a 4-3 split
Council discussed the issue in camera with Fire Chief Jamie Wilkinson for approximately 30 minutes.
After council went back into a public meeting, Coun. Carla Prediger made the motion to approve entering into an agreement with Ponoka County.
In the motion, she detailed the outline of the three-year proposal, which confirms the split of operations at 25 per cent to the town and 75 per cent to the county plus a 50/50 split of capital costs. Ultimate decision making would fall to a joint advisory committee with the town and county CAOs and the regional fire chief as ex-officio members of the committee and a town fire chief running the fire hall. It would also maintain the town’s ownership of the fire hall.
Coun. Marc Yaworski did not see this as a collaborative agreement. He is concerned that the town’s costs would increase if the county’s department grew. He suggested the regional department would be dedicated only to the county and not to the town. “They will become the county fire department running the entire county and it won’t be a regional fire department.”
There is enough means and personnel to handle a separate system, added Coun. Tim Falkiner who suggested the same service levels will remain for town residents.
However, Coun. Teri Underhill disagreed. She looked at the financial side of the fire department and how the separation will affect revenue. Ponoka County would no longer contribute $140,000 of the town’s approximate $360,000 annual operations, said Underhill. “We would no longer have those sources of revenue,” said Underhill.
She added that a one per cent increase to taxes will amount to approximately $57,000 and residents would have to bear the brunt of that after paying out the county for assets of the fire hall, inferring a three per cent increase might be necessary.
Coun. Loanna Gulka suggested the blame falls on the county for the split. “We did not do this. We had a fire department that was inclusive of town and county.”
“I cannot support the motion because I cannot support an agreement that doesn’t have 50/50 say,” Gulka added.
She suggested if the town grows, it would have to create a new fire department and pay additional costs, however, she said Wilkinson stated the same or better level of services would be maintained for town residents.
Coun. Sandra Lyon agreed. “I don’t think you can put a price on something that is an essential service.”
For Mayor Rick Bonnett the issue boils down to resources. “We’re looking at giving up a significant amount of money.”
With a 75/25 split in operations with the county, the town would be on the hook for approximately $40,000 annually. “It’s a good deal. There’s some tweaks that’s gotta be worked out with it,” said Bonnett.
He added the province favours collaboration with municipalities but splitting goes against that.
“If we do go alone, we’re going to need to restructure this organization in the worst way and find dollars and cents because I’m not prepared to go to the citizens and ask for a tax increase at this time,” Bonnett stated.
For Prediger there are three considerations: financial, safety and strategy. She said councillors have muddied the waters so much and the responsibility falls on councillors to fix the issue.
She added that residents want safety and residents want taxes to remain low.
“We can’t allow someone else to decide how our town will operate,” stated Yaworski.
He suggests councillors have to make the right decision as citizens. Prediger replied that the decision must be as a representative of the community. She said both town and county residents shop at the same stores and use the same amenities but putting a dividing line between town and county is not ideal.
“We have to move forward collaboratively,” she stated.
After the decision to split, interim CAO Doug Wright said he would be working with Wilkinson the next day to begin the process of working as a standalone fire department.
Response from the chamber and EDB
After the decision Jim Hamilton, speaking as the chairperson of the Ponoka and District Chamber of Commerce made a statement.
“The chamber is sure that the citizens and businesses are well protected and safe with this decision of council. We are not sure if you peel back the emotional side of the decision, if it is in the best interest of the town’s taxpayers.”
“We will certainly be interacting with our members and be guided accordingly once the cost is known,” Hamilton added in the statement.
EDB chair Graham, who spoke briefly at the meeting said it was clear that residents wanted a regional system. On a personal level he suggests the decision against a regional system by councillors appears “clouded.”
From an economic development standpoint, Graham suggests voting on a regional system should have been made purely from a business and cost-savings point of view.
Training would fall under one roof with a larger pool of volunteer firefighters rather than two training days and duplicated infrastructure, said Graham. The statements of councillors voting against a regional fire system added to his questions rather than answered them.
***A correction to the story was made to clarify Prediger’s motion and the terms of the proposal sent by the county. We regret the error. Reaction from the chamber and EDB was added to the story for the Jan. 20 edition.***