The great debate: who will pay what

The Smoky River Emergency Services building in Falher. Costs of providing fire services has municipalities in the Smoky River region concerned. The issue is not quality of service provided, only cost.

Falling revenues in the M.D. of Smoky River has them asking its partners to pay more, but the asking price is too high, the partners agree

Chris Clegg
South Peace News

A loss of about $7 million in taxation revenue in the last 18 months has the M.D. of Smoky River asking its regional partners in the Fire Services Agreement to pay more.

Reeve Robert Brochu says the M.D. has taken a “pretty huge” hit in revenue – 40 to 50 per cent – due to the downturn in the energy industry.

“We need to get a more equitable agreement,” he says.

He says the existing agreement, which is up for renewal, is five years old and was agreed to based on the consultant’s recommendation.

He adds the fire agreement and others like FCSS and economic development, has the M.D. paying the majority of the bill.

Currently, the M.D. pays 75 per cent for fire services and its partners 25 per cent. Partners include the Village of Girouxville, Town of Falher, Village of Donnelly, and Town of McLennan.

“We need to get closer to what other agreements are in place,” says Brochu, adding the M.D. pays 70 per cent on such items as FCSS and economic development.

“This [fire] agreement is too high for us,” he adds, saying the M.D. can not be a “Father Figure” to all parties.

He stresses all parties are in negotiations.

“We’ll just see how it goes,” he says.

The M.D. is proposing a 60-40 split to its partners.

Falher proposes special tax

The Town of Falher is proposing a special tax to help pay for fire services in the Smoky River Region.

The proposal has met differing views from regional municipalities from a flat “No” from the Village of Donnelly to “under considered” by the Town of McLennan.

Falher Mayor Donna Buchinski wrote the October 9 letter to the regional partners.

The matter arose from rising costs in the Fire Services Agreement among the five governments. The M.D. of Smoky River provides the service with the other partners signing contracts.

Buchinski’s letter reads time is running out to “achieve a common goal with the time between now and the next Fire Services Agreement meeting” Oct. 28. She added “our time for the effective discussion of our expiring agreements is quickly disappearing…we write you all in the hopes…we can find a solution that works well for everyone…”

The M.D. of Smoky River has proposed increases which do not sit well with other partners. Due to falling assessment and taxation revenue, Smoky River is asking its partners to pay more. Buchinski recognized that fact in her letter.

“With municipal budgets being stretched further and further, our communities are forced to simply do more with less.

“With that in mind, our community cannot afford an almost doubling requisition.”

Falher has proposed 10 items for the partners to consider.

  1. A doubling of fees for all fire fighter apparatus as outlined in Schedule F; including all vehicles and fire fighters.
  2. The addition of a base fee, or callout fee in Schedule F, that is charged on all responses where the FD is not “stood down”; this would not be charged on “two free false alarms per year rule”.
  3. A stipulation that all FD responses will be invoiced according to the schedule of fees. “No freebies.” The current “two free false alarms per year rule” would still be applicable.
  4. A commitment that the Smoky River Regional Fire Department will continue to maintain one paid member; all others will be volunteers and compensated in line with current policies.
  5. A revision to the 2021-25 Smoky River Regional Fire Department Budget to adjust “23- 764 Capital Reserve – Truck & Equipment” to an annual amount of $100,000. [Currently listed at $190,000]
  6. The increased revenues from general invoicing that would result from Points 1 & 2 listed above, would help to make up the balance for the capital portion currently proposed. We request that the agreements to include a commitment that revenues above the $147,120 listed in the most recent budget, be transferred to capital reserves on an annual basis, this would relieve some of the burden to the general taxpayers.
  7. A quarterly report of finances of the Smoky River Regional Fire Department to be sent to all municipalities from the CAO of the M.D. of Smoky River No. 130.
  8. A re-evaluation of the Capital Expenditure Replacement plan for years included in the agreement; 2021-25. As budgets tighten, we feel that these replacements could be delayed until the next 5-year period.
  9. A commitment for the M.D. of Smoky River to carry out due diligence with applying for grants prior to any Capital Expenditure Replacements.
  10. Finally, we ask for all five municipalities to consider passing a special tax in accordance with the Municipal Government Act [Section 382. 1-i]. A tax specifically for fire services, facilitating a transparency with our residents for the increased rates.

Too much, says McLennan

McLennan town council is saying the proposed fee for fire services is too much.

“How do they expect small towns to survive?” asked Councillor Marie-Anne Jones at council’s Oct. 13 meeting.

“We can’t afford it,” added Councillor Sue Delaurier.

The M.D. of Smoky River’s proposal is asking McLennan to pay $60,000 in 2021 as opposed to only $33,000 in 2020.

Councillors are very unhappy with the proposed increase.

“That fire department lacks nothing,” said Councillor Dwanye Stout.

He called the proposed increase “absolutely ridiculous”.

CAO Lorraine Willier noted the M.D. of Smoky River currently pays 75 per cent of the total budget, with other municipalities, such as McLennan, each paying 25 per cent. The M.D. is proposing that percentage changes to a 60-40 split thereby increasing its partners’ fees.

Stout understood the M.D.’s problem, noting that linear assessment dropped, thereby decreasing the M.D.’s taxation revenue. Therefore, in regard to costs, they were “going to pass it on”.

Delaurier said McLennan council gives the M.D. their money without any say in the budget.

“It’d be nice if we had some input,” she said.

“If they are asking municipalities to give that much money, we should have more say,” she reiterated near the end of the meeting.

Delaurier also recognized the M.D.’s financial plight, however.

“They’re hurting but we’re hurting, too.”

Delaurier then criticized past decisions.

“Did we need to go that extravagant on that building [Smoky River Emergency Services]?” she asked.

“Now is the time to speak,” she added, referring to the budget, and the upcoming meeting Oct. 28.

Stout agreed.

“Without good discussion they will just keep up and up and up [costs],” he said.

“What else are we going to close in town; $63,000 is just too much money?

“We had a fire department here for 25 years running bare bones and they did a good job,” he added.

McLennan council examined Buchinski’s Oct. 9 letter.

“I validate their concerns as well,” said Delaurier, summing up council’s feelings.

“They’re all very legit,” she added.

One innovative proposal calls for a special tax to pay only for fire services. Then every taxpayer would know exactly how much they pay for the service.

Jones asked council if they were not happy with the M.D.’s 60-40 split, what exactly did they want.

“75-25,” said Stout. “If we have to offer them 70-30…just a thought.”

“We can try,” said Jones.

In the end, McLennan is left with few options in regard to fire protection service: come to an agreement or form their own fire department.

“We definitely can’t afford something like that [fire department] on our own,” said Delaurier.

Donnelly responds

The costs of fire services was discussed at the Village of Donnelly meeting Oct. 14 with the “huge increase” at the forefront.

“We have a state-of-the-art fire department,” said Councillor Brian Labrecque.

“We have to draw the line somewhere,” added Councillor Aubrey Stenhouse, referring to costs.

“We’re looking at a huge increase,” said Mayor Myrna Lanctot.

However, figures were not disclosed due to ongoing negotiations.

Labrecque suggested providing the M.D. of Smoky River with a figure acceptable to Donnelly.

“This is what we’re willing to pay,” he said, but did not disclose a figure.

“Make it work. I’m sorry, they have to make it work. It’s [the service] not sustainable.”

Like other partners, he understood the M.D.’s plight.

“The oil industry is kaput. It’s impacted them greatly.”

However, he says the service is too expensive.

And, added La- brecque, the M.D. “never shard these revenues” when times were good.

It was also noted the M.D. still had the ability to generate more revenue by raising taxes. Labreque noted the M.D. was trying to keep its taxes low while making others pay.

“It’s going to be a negotiation,” said Lanctot.

A proposal from Falher to implement a special tax was shunned by council.

“No,” said Labrecque. “At the end of the day, we’re still paying. This is extra.”

Lanctot agreed.

“The residents are expecting that fire department as part of their taxes,” she said.

But she has not lost hope an agreement fair to all can be reached.

“There is still an opportunity to make this right,” she said.

“At the end of the day they [M.D.] wants to pay less and they want us to pay more,” said Labrecque.

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