Clearing the air on the North Bridge project

Mayor Rick Bonnett speaks out on the North Bridge and town finances in letter to the editor.

Dear Editor,

I would like to take the time and clear up some misconceptions that have been circling the coffee shops of town. One is that there has been money put aside for the bridge replacement from the past, which there has not. Next that the project is on hold, which it is not. Both stories are false. I want to reaffirm that the town continues to maintain a balanced budget under the rules of the Municipal Government Act and we are in very good fiscal shape by all accounts under the legislation we are enacted by. Every year our books are audited and are public record for all taxpayers to inspect.

I am sure you are wondering now that there are a significant number of names filed on a petition, where do we go from here? Step one is for administration to validate the names and addresses of all those who signed. Next, we will need to decide on plebiscite and public hearing. Then, we either change the bylaw or raise taxes to pay for bridge in short term meaning 5 years or less.

If we have to call for a plebiscite, the extra cost of doing so will need to be reflected in an increase of taxes above our proposed 1.5 percent increase in 2016. If the plebiscite is lost and the borrowing bylaw not approved, we will need to completely have to revise the 2016 budget. This means we will have to make massive cuts in service and programs to prepare for short term borrowing to complete the bridge replacement.

When we decided to replace the existing North Bridge last year, I would never have guessed that we would be at this point where we are petitioned on a vital part of the town’s infrastructure. The bridge has been discussed for being replaced since the late 1990s. Penalties would be too severe to halt the project now, and the safety and liability of the old bridge would be too much of a management risk.

Believe me when I say the most economical way to finance this long term use of the bridge is the borrowing bylaw. Having enough money for these million dollar projects means starting 20 years prior, or utilizing the borrowing that the government offers us at long term stable and low interest rates. Even as governments prepare to spend billions on infrastructure as we have heard in the just recently completed elections, it will mostly be low interest borrowing they will be offering municipalities and not a lot of extra granting funds as all funds are either taxed or borrowed in 2015. There is no free money!

Now for a little background. The land for this project was purchased many years ago. The preliminary design and discussions had been going on for many years, before I was elected to council. These discussions and decision to replace the bridge have also included seeking government assistance.

Due to the state of the economy in past few years and lack of will on the part federal and provincial governments to allocate funds into infrastructure for communities, this council needed to take the matter into our own hands and move this important project forward.

With the confirmation of engineering reports in 2003, I would have expected that former councils would have started placing funds in reserve for a replacement. As councils, we should be placing funds away every year in contingency for future building and major projects like this. But unfortunately that has not been the case, and it is extremely hard to do when we have so many other concerns. We are always trying to be fiscally responsible, but as we find out year in and year out, the costs for these kinds of projects escalate in price and regulation and this continues to place strains on available funds. And as we know, governments have downloaded to municipalities more responsibility to take control of our own infrastructure.

The bridge has served Ponoka very well. We had options to either replace it or close it and when we discussed this last spring, we heard loud and clear that closing it was not very popular option. As construction started on the road portion of the construction, it became apparent that the borrowing bylaw was not readied prior to first phase of construction. As mayor, I apologize to all citizens on behalf of council and administration for the oversight and take full responsibility. We have made changes to administration in areas of guidance. We have contacted and are working with Municipal Affairs as we continue to move the project forward.

The bridge portion of the project is on schedule as was the original plan for March 2016 and total completion and removal of the existing structure by the end of August 2016. Once the bridge and final elevation base coat have been placed, the new roadway then pavement, curbing and connection to trail way is completed, the new bridge will be operational.

So to be clear, the project has not been stopped or delayed by any means at this point in time.

The town of Ponoka has the lowest amount of borrowed debt amongst all the towns and cities along the QE 2 corridor as well as the lowest amount of growth along the corridor beside Millet. If you doubt my stats, just go to the Alberta Municipal Affairs website and do some research of your own. We have used only 13 per cent of our debt limit, and of that number, between the end 2015-17, the town will be retiring almost $200,000 worth of payments that the town has been paying in past many years.

The proposed borrowing bylaw is 40 years at $240,000 year, with an allowable amortization rate of 75 years. Council believes it is a good risk management position to have it cleared off the books with 35 years of use remaining by engineering standards. Maintained properly, it can get the residents another 100 years or better like the old green bridge of the past.

Thank you for this opportunity to clear the air and provide what I believe is factual and helpful information for this important discussion.

Sincerely,

Rick Bonnett,

Mayor,

Town of Ponoka