By Trevor Busch
Editor’s Note: In a Taber Times website exclusive, reporter Trevor Busch covered the town’s municipal election forum at the Heritage Inn on Oct. 12.
The proposed fire hall and the future of the town’s department dominated debate at the municipal election forum hosted at the Heritage Inn on Thursday evening.
A large crowd of voters and residents attended the event, with standing room only early on in forum. There was little question what topic was first and foremost in voter’s minds, and candidates were grilled early on the fire hall question.
“There’s a lot more to moving the fire hall than any of the public is aware,” said Jack Brewin. “We have a public works building that is overflowing, part of the plan is to extend our public works into the existing fire hall. We’re not then required to build another building for public works. The location has not been decided, there’s been some misinformation out there. We tested two pods because the town owned that property. We had to test that land to see if it was even viable to put a fire station on it. We have still yet to hold open houses with the discussion of where we might locate it. There’s some really good spots, but it’s going to be expensive. If we’re able to put in on property that the town already owns, it probably saves us half a million dollars by doing that.”
Kevin O’Grady felt the whole future of the town’s department is in need of re-evaluation moving forward.
“I would like to sit down with the town CAO, the fire chief, because I look at it — I am a firefighter in the past — I would like to know the future of the fire department. We’re looking at spending $1.2 million on an aerial truck, we want to spend $2.5 million on a new fire hall.”
Louie Tams was more in favour of assessing the project’s value when all the facts have been presented to the public.
“I don’t necessarily know if we need a new fire hall. But current council has come to a decision that we should be looking at a new fire hall. If elected, I will look at a new fire hall. I’m not opposed to it, I’m not necessarily in favour of it. I would think all the facts need to be on the table, all of the questions have to get asked, all the answers have to be given. At that point in time, then the community needs to say yes or no.”
Incumbent Laura Ross-Giroux indicated the facts support the idea of relocating the fire hall.
“I was initially one of those that went into this committee thinking we do not need a new fire hall. But then I was presented with a lot of facts. Right now, with the HIRF standards, they ask that we can show up at the fire within 10 minutes. Where the fire hall sits right now, a very small percentage of the town actually falls within that 10 minute window.”
Taber is at a disadvantage when it comes to home sales, according to Mark Garner.
“I can see both sides of the story. I don’t think we should rush into doing anything right yet, but I understand why we need to look at that, because I think if we can’t respond in time, then precautions have to be built into new homes that are expensive. A sprinkler system for a typical home outside of that HIRF zone is about $10,000 – $12,000, and I’ve sold some of those homes, and I’ve talked to contractors, and it is costly. And so we are at an economic disadvantage when we compete with housing in Coaldale, for example.”
Carly Firth trotted out facts and figures supporting the construction of a new hall in order to help spur development.
“I would agree with what Mr. Garner said about our housing market competing with other housing markets. If a house here costs $10,000 – $15,000 more than the same house built in Coaldale or Barnwell, why wouldn’t you build there? Another thing is the extra infrastructure when you talk about setbacks, so the other option besides installing a sprinkler system is increasing setbacks for houses. So you have a bigger lot, which initially looks pretty good, but again, it costs more. Also all the infrastructure underneath that — the sidewalks, the water and sanitation pipes — for every extra foot of concrete between houses and sanitation pipes and everything underneath, it costs an extra $1,800. So an eight foot setback costs an extra $7,200 to the town, and in turn to the taxpayer. So I think when we talk about that, dollars and cents, it kind of makes sense that yes we do need a new fire hall. Do we need it right now? I don’t know.”
Bo Hatch argued spending donated funds on the venture is a mistake.
“As I see it there’s three parties involved. Taxpayers, we want safety, we want a good fire station, and we don’t want to spend money that’s not worth it. Then you have developers that don’t want to spend money on HIRF regulations, they don’t want to spend extra money, they want to save money. And then you have the firemen, they need good equipment and they want to do the best job that they can, and we need to support them. So we have three parties, and we have to figure out where the financing comes from. I think there’s been a mistake in using the donation money towards it.”
Finances are the key question, according to Naomi Brewin-Wiebe.
“I’ve heard a lot of good ideas, one of them is that we could have a substation, there’s the idea of having it by the police station, but at this point in time the funding isn’t there. We need to look at the funding, and we need to find out where we’re doing it before we can figure anything else out.”
Garth Bekkering suggested the community should be less hung up on response times.
“It seems to me that the rationale is little convoluted in that we’re largely a volunteer fire department. When a fire call goes out — in my explanation at least — it’s either people working, volunteers, and their jobs during the daytime, or they’re having supper with their families, it’s the evening, or they’re sleeping. The fire call goes out, and they have to go from their home or their job, respond to the fire hall, get into their clothes, makes sure there’s enough people — I don’t understand how moving the fire hall is going to make a big difference on the response time. The response time is just a number, it doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.”
John Papp appeared to be in favour of consideration of the project.
“The fire hall is going to be a big decision as to what’s going to happen with council this year. The HIRF regulation is not something that just came into practice now. It’s been in place since 1980 or 1981. The developers and the planners knew about it. I think it’s something that the planners for the town, or the developers, should have taken into consideration about the different types of regulations that they needed. Developers made the smaller lots so they could get better profits off the land. I think this is something that we should look at.”
Mayoral candidate Andrew Prokop was clear that the community needs to have a voice involved with the decision.
“The issue over the fire hall, to build or not to build, has been a very contentious issue over the past few months. There’s been a lot of thought and labour involved in coming to that decision. It was basically two years in the making to come up with that decision. I was very unsure about whether that was an actual need, but with all the actual information involved, there’s a lot more to it than the public has been aware at this stage, and there needs to more of that information to make that decision as we did. We do support that going forward, but the location is a big issue, and we need more consultation and input.”
Prokop’s opponent Randy Sparks cautioned restraint.
“We just need to hold off on this, and get public consultation, because with the HIRF regulations right now, regardless of whether we put the fire station on either of the two sites, there’s only a 34 second window. Thirty-four seconds doesn’t cut it. We need to take the time to make the right decision as far as HIRF, and response times. The money that’s been set aside, it’s here to be used for this or something else. So we just need to be patient and get the right spot.”
Spanning two hours, other questions from the floor during the forum included plans to bring in new business, enhanced accountability and transparency, accommodating opportunities for public input, shopping local, creating an inclusive and welcoming community, how the town can work with the chamber of commerce to promote local business, and rotating council members on boards and commissions.
Questions were taken from the floor until the end of the forum, with the crowd when asked favouring continuing with the question and answer period rather than hearing summations from candidates. All of the candidates agreed in advance to stay after the forum to speak one-on-one with voters and residents.
The municipal election is on Monday, Oct. 16.