By Trevor Busch
Mayor Henk DeVlieger is calling the move a ‘slap in the face’ to the Town of Taber.
The recent decision of the Village of Barnwell to exit their fire service agreement with the Town of Taber in favour of signing on with the Municipal District of Taber’s new service has seen another municipality stripped away from the town’s now-defunct regional collaborative model.
“We’re very disappointed. It seems like the only thing that Taber is good for is the amenities they can all use for free,” said DeVlieger. “Council’s biggest disappointment is why did they not approach us, is there a way we can work together. They feel like it makes more sense to go with the M.D., that’s all they said. They don’t even have a new fire hall yet, so there was a one year notification — but they want to be done with us the end of this month already (March), which I think is very unprofessional. Sure they’re going to pay us out, but still, it’s a slap in the face.”
Barnwell officially terminated its fire service contract with the town on March 21. In a press release issued by the village at the time, CAO Wendy Bateman indicated most municipalities of Barnwell’s size and population are equipped with a fire hall and volunteer service.
“They came to the office to inform us officially with a letter,” said DeVlieger. “The remarks I made to the town manager (CAO Wendy Bateman) and the mayor (Jane Jensen), who were present, was that we were very disappointed. I wasn’t surprised it was coming. The most disappointing part is we didn’t get an opportunity to see if we could do something together — they want their own fire hall in their own community, for insurance reasons — so I told her the biggest disappointment was why did you not ask us to come and see if we can work together in doing that, since we’ve been working together since forever.”
DeVlieger maintained his allegation that M.D. of Taber council had negotiated in bad faith during the last contract discussions that preceded their decision in 2016 to part ways with the town’s fire service.
“The whole thing doesn’t surprise me, because of course the M.D. (of Taber) did the same thing to us. We were in negotiations for a number of months with the M.D. and Barnwell, sitting at the same table, and to do a regional approach was never brought up. It was the same with the M.D., we were always threatened that they were going to go ‘Plan B’. Every meeting they were coming up with new approaches, new ideas — they were basically working on this to make it impossible, to get their own goal, which was ‘Plan B’, which was never revealed to us.”
Barnwell decided to pay out the full last year of its agreement with the Town of Taber, which saw Barnwell become part of the M.D. of Taber Regional Fire Service Initiative as of March 31.
“That’s actually the biggest disappointment, is why did they not ask us, if what they had didn’t work, why don’t we look at a regional approach — which they actually do now — and include Taber,” said DeVlieger. “Which would make financially more sense, too. I’ve done rough calculations — I’m not quite done with them yet — but between all the municipalities that participated before, I think the taxpayers are probably on the hook for another $600,000 to $700,000, unnecessarily. To me that is waste. The new MGA is going to talk more about doing collaborative work together, but this of course is doing totally the opposite. I can see their point, they want to do this fast, because a new MGA is going to make it more impossible to do those things.”
Barnwell will be building a fire hall and recruiting volunteers to be trained as firefighters, and will be responding not only to calls within the Village of Barnwell, but in the M.D. of Taber as well.
DeVlieger suggested the financial impact of the decision on the town’s fire service will not be overly significant, and that new revenue streams are being generated, such as the Fire Training Centre.
“The financial implication is not that big. I can’t recall off-hand, but it’s around $25,000 annually. That’s to overcome, but there’s only about 5-7 calls per year. So it was a very reasonable amount they got charged. But to overcome the total difference — because the M.D. was paying over $300,000 — we have to make up for that, that we don’t get anymore.”
DeVlieger was firm in his conviction that the Town of Taber is not considering any changes or restructuring of the Taber Fire Department in light of recent decisions by neighbouring municipalities.
“No. We want to give the same service, which we think is fair. We (can) still make it work in the budget. We want to keep giving the same service, which is high-quality service.”
Unwilling to give up on the town’s regional collaborative fire services model, DeVlieger fired a shot across the bow at M.D. council, suggesting a ‘new M.D. council that is different’ might be more amenable to the town’s present approach to delivery of fire services.
“I still hope — there’s elections coming up in October — that if there is a new M.D. council that is different, that we could sit down again and say we have to work together. That’s my vision. We need to keep having a positive attitude. This is not going to bring us down. We keep looking at the positive and have the hope that in the future we can collaborate and work together with the municipalities that are around us.”