By Trevor Busch
Mayor Andrew Prokop is hoping to add clarity to public questions surrounding town council’s recent allocation of a $2.4 million donation to two town projects.
“There just seems to be a lot of misinformation, or misunderstanding out there,” said Prokop. “The proposed site has yet to be established, that’s believed to be coming as a recommendation at our next meeting (Aug. 21), as well as a design.”
The Town of Taber was the recent beneficiary of the estate of former Municipal District of Taber resident William Ferguson. 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 of the donation for a new fire hall building.
Council discussion over how to best allocate the funding was conducted behind closed doors, and some citizens have questioned the lack of accountability and transparency involved with a decision to earmark millions in public funds.
At a special meeting of council held on Aug. 2, council directed administration to look into design, timing and cost options for a new fire hall.
“That’s still in the works. I believe that’s coming forward for our next meeting, Aug. 21,” said Prokop. “And related to the location recommendations — there’s 12 or so possibles in the 500 metre circle. We’re basically just looking for them to try to recommend a potential proposed site for all the best possible purposes. At this stage I can’t guarantee that, but that was the ask, so I hope that’s going to come out, and we’ll have a lot clearer direction after that meeting.”
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.
Improving the response times of the town’s volunteer fire service, which could have a corresponding effect on the development community with regard to decreased input costs, has been a long-standing bone of contention for local developers with properties currently outside the radius of a 10-minute response time. As a result, developers in the community have been required to build homes with very specific materials and setbacks, raising the cost for housing.
“There’s a lot more to it than has even come out,” said Prokop. “This decision wasn’t made lightly to go forward with this project. I think it was clear — and we’ve said in the past that originally when this came up in the last two years, it didn’t sound like it maybe was a great idea, but again, we didn’t have all the facts. That was very premature to be making that decision, and we weren’t making that decision back when it originally came up. But with the little bit of information we had, there was lots of questions overall — that’s the fairest way to put it.”
Three potential scenarios for relocating the town’s fire hall to meet a 10-minute response time were presented to town council in May. The town’s HIRF committee met three times to compile information from previous studies and present research into a HIRF report that outlines the case for relocating the fire department and how to alleviate costs. Alternative 1 suggested council approve the Taber Fire Department being relocated to, “Within 500 m2 of the 50th Street and 50th Avenue intersection.”
In its conclusions and recommendations, the HIRF Committee suggested Alternative 1 was the most favourable in terms of mitigating HIRF requirements and meeting the intent of, “prosperity and growth for the Town of Taber as well as the safety of residents.”
Prokop suggested the allocation of the funds should be “basically” regarded as an official approval of the fire hall project.
In most cases, town projects are usually officially approved by council or budgeted following public deliberations — a protocol which was not followed in this situation.
“I guess that’s a yes and no answer. But basically yes — the funds, the $2.4 million generously donated from the Ferguson estate — were allocated for the building of a fire hall. When that happened, when that motion was made and unanimously approved, we never got into the brass tacks of the actual project. But that was definitely to approve the project of the building of a fire hall at a new central location within that 500 metre circle, which is roughly at 50th Avenue and 50th Street.”
This assertion was contradicted in public comments at council’s Aug. 2 special meeting, where Coun. Randy Sparks suggested the fire hall project was anything but a “done deal” for town council, despite an initial press release from the town’s communications department which alluded to the project being all but decided.
“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,” said Sparks on Aug. 2. “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. 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.”
Prokop stressed that council’s decision was made after much internal deliberation, and that the town had certainly done its due diligence.
“We’ve been weighing all of the pros and cons, and all of the information, going over everything as thoroughly as possible. We’ve been asking the same tough kinds of questions (as the media), and doing our research, and looking into things the proper way. We believe this is a good decision all the way around for the community with everything involved, and everything on the table. It wasn’t a snap decision in any shape or form — we’ve looked into this for quite a length of time, weighed all the pros and cons, and believe this was the best overall decision. And it was a unanimous decision.”
To replace the current fire station with all the amenities of the current hall, some estimates have run as high as $5-$6 million, but in the HIRF committee’s report, it was stated that through review of information compiled by fire chief Steve Munshaw, the total cost of relocating and constructing a new fire hall is now estimated to not exceed $2.5 million.
Initially, there was no information included regarding how this lower figure was reached by administration or the committee, but Prokop was able to clarify how the town reached this estimate.
“It’s come out through administration that there’s actually other locations that our administration was looking at to compare in response to the HIRF requirements across the province, in basically the last five years. Those locations were Brooks, Hanna, Tilley, Oyen, and Smoky River that all built the same basic fire hall building design. It ranged anywhere from $2.25 million to $2.5 million, for a total cost of the building. With a central location concern, their response to the HIRF requirements and the situation across the province — that’s what prompted them to go that route all in the last five years.”
Questions still remain regarding the way the funds were allocated by town council, with discussion conducted almost exclusively in camera — or closed session — which bars the public from participation in the proceedings.
“As far as anything goes regarding any closed session requirements, it’s always based on land, legal, or labour,” said Prokop. “That’s pretty accurate overall. I don’t know that we’ve ever strayed away from that. Those are the three basic rules of engagement on that, related to the estate that was related to legal, and we felt that because there was so many discussions about the monetary end and what led to that end all result, it was felt that was where that fell into place. I guess on the other side of the coin we could have discussed it all in open (session), but it seemed to me, and the rest of council, and administration’s recommendation actually, that this should be a closed session item because of some of the sensitivity attached to this legal side.”
Prokop added that town council and administration is always willing to listen to the concerns of the public with regard to any decision or initiative. Individuals interested in presenting as a delegation to town council need to give roughly a week’s notice prior to an upcoming meeting to be included as part of the official agenda.
“I welcome anybody that has any questions or concerns to contact either myself, administration, or other council members. Anybody can come as a delegation for any topic, that would be a request to our administrative office people. We have done that on occasion when there’s a concern raised. I don’t see any reason why if the general public had a concern they couldn’t come as a delegation voicing that concern, and their reasons why, and any other suggestions they may have, and we would certainly hear them out.”
Council made the best possible choice with the information that was presented to them, according to Prokop.
“I feel very comfortable with the decision. There was a lot of information before us, and a great many deliberations with council looking at all the HIRF Committee recommendations, fire department recommendations, administration’s recommendations — all of that rolled into one, and came to this final conclusion. The key is, that we felt was very important also, back to the generous donation from Mr. Bill Ferguson’s estate, that total $2.4 million — the allocation of $1.5 million will cover the majority of that cost for the new fire hall.”