By Greg Price
The push ahead for a proposed new fire hall continued at a special council meeting last Wednesday, as council has directed administration to look at design, timing and cost options for a new fire hall and bring the results of that work back at a future meeting as soon as the information becomes available for council’s consideration.
The Town of Taber was the recent beneficiary of the estate of former Municipal District of Taber resident William Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson left the town approximately $2.4 million after he passed away in October 2016.
Following in camera (closed session) discussion at their July 17 regular meeting, council voted unanimously to set aside $1.5 million dollars for a new fire hall building.
There was some concern if it was within council’s right to make such large financial decisions or resolutions within two months of an election.
Town of Taber Chief Administrative Officer Cory Armfelt noted to council they conferred with Alberta Municipal Affairs in which the organization noted in the positive.
“Council can make decisions right up until the day of the election,” said Armfelt.
Moving the fire hall to a more centralized location has been highlighted as being able to reduce response times by approximately five minutes, increasing the safety of residents and businesses.
The Alberta Building Code in 2006 addressed high intensity residential fires (HIRF), identifying a need for fire departments to respond in under 10 minutes more than 90 per cent of the time.
Due to this decision, towns with fire departments unable to achieve this threshold within their response areas would require new buildings to have sprinkler systems installed, increased setbacks or changes to windows and non-vented soffits.
The motion for administration to push ahead in the issue of the new fire hall came with councillor Laura Ross-Giroux voicing concerns she had heard from some residents over council’s lack of transparency in deciding how to allocate the funds of William Ferguson’s estate to town projects.
Discussion on how to allocate the $2.4 million donation was done in closed session at council’s July 17 meeting. There was also another lengthy in-camera session involving the fire hall after council’s special Aug. 2 meeting in which a little over half an hour of the meeting was open to the public. Several questions remain about the fire hall project, like exact costs with numbers having been bantered about previously of between $2.5-$6 million, where the exact location would be of a centralized fire hall and the cost share for the project between the town and home builders whose input costs would be lowered with the centralized fire hall.
“I’ve received feedback from a few people in the community as to why we need a new fire hall, when the decision was made etc. etc.,” said Ross-Giroux. “We seem to be barreling ahead with this without following the proper protocol.”
Jack Brewin replied the motion is to get things in motion to find out price points for the proposed fire hall along with some of the unknowns that remain.
“We need to get some results to find out exactly how it’s going to work and where is it going to work and how much. Let’s get some numbers and see how it works. We all discussed this earlier, it’s been before council for quite a few months with reports and advice from other officials,” said Brewin. “If we want to see the town continue to grow we have to keep up with the times and keep things rolling. We all passed this unanimously ($1.5 million allotted at July 17 meeting for fire hall). To bring this up now is kind of troubling. We have discussed this a number of times with feedback from key people. I think we should carry on like we did with the trout pond (motion).”
Councillor Rick Popadynetz added there was a study done in 2015 with part of it highlighting liability concerns for a town without a fire department that can attend calls within the 10-minute time frame as highlighted by HIRF.
“On a personal level, I looked in the mirror and said I would be a solemnly silly person not to say we need a new fire hall. We have had a study done and to put life safety on the line for recreation or some other type of building, I would be an immoral human being,” said Popadynetz. “We need to look at all the citizens in the community who would benefit from this building. A new building that is economically friendly and efficient that is good for the community for 30 years or more. We can have some sort of green technology put into it that can open us up for more grants and showcase our community.”
Councillor Randy Sparks warned that while $1.5 million of William Ferguson’s $2.4 million donation from his estate has been earmarked toward a new fire hall project, the project is not a done deal at this point.
“This isn’t a done deal by any stretch of the imagination. Administration has been told to get prices and all these sorts of things. I battled with this myself. We throw this HIRF (High-Intensity Residential Fire (HIRF) standards) name out there. HIRF is a joke. HIRF is not any bylaw or rule with the Town of Taber,” said Sparks. “It has nothing to do with the Town of Taber, yet we throw it out there and make people think it is. It is run by the insurance companies, that’s who sets that. If you live 10-minutes response time away from the fire hall, you have to have sprinklers. We have to be very careful we are not misleading with that word HIRF. They are the ones through the insurance companies who have created issues that people have to have sprinklers in their house. Not town council, not the mayor, not administration…insurance companies.”
Sparks added he was initially against the idea of anew fire hall. But after many discussions with fire chief Steve Munshaw, after things were explained more, Sparks warmed to the idea of why a new fire hall needs to be done in the centre of town.
“There has been lots in the paper about this. If people have questions, they can certainly ask us and the questions will be answered. It all comes down to a safety thing,” said Sparks. “That you can get to houses that are on fire unfortunately, in a time that maybe you can save property and people. Everyone is going to have an opinion, the residents of the Town of Taber, whether we need this or not. My goodness, if you need questions answered, please get hold of your council men and council woman and get some questions answered.”
Brewin also added a new fire hall would have implications of relocating the parks department into the existing fire hall building.
“We are also opening up some room for our public works. It is more than just HIRF,” said Brewin.
CAO Armfelt concluded discussion before the motion was passed unanimously that Taber is at a disadvantage by HIRF regulations comparative to other communities who have more centralized fire halls as far as new development goes.
“We have had some fairly large agricultural and industrial businesses courting our community and the reason they have said they are moving onto other communities is the start-up cost of housing here is punitive because of this HIRF,” said Armfelt. “Building houses in Coaldale or Taber, when you build a house in Taber, you are spending about $15,000 more on that exact same house in Taber.”