By Trevor Busch
Editor’s Note: The following story is extended coverage of the public question and answer period of the Town of Taber’s Feb. 13 open house.
The Town of Taber’s Emergency Services Building Open House opened with a presentation by administration detailing the background work completed to date, timelines involved with the proposed project, and the economic development case for relocating the fire hall, before turning the meeting over to moderator Bonnie Farries who took questions for administration and town council from the public.
In a question from Ben Koersen, council or administration were asked if other economic development alternatives for use of a $1.5 million donation were ever considered before council went ahead with allocating the funds for a new fire hall.
“I think the council of the day considered the benefit to economic development and the safety of the residents as the two,” said CAO Cory Armfelt. “We could certainly take that and build a recreation facility, but that is not what the council of the day decided would be priorities for them.”
Other questions and comments from the floor suggested re-evaluating the number of four-way stops in the community to accelerate arrival times at the present fire hall, as well as the cost of previous studies that have been completed regarding the HIRF (High Intensity Residential Fire regulations) issue in Taber.
“We look at all traffic routes in all aspects to the locations when we’re assessing to get to a call,” said fire chief Steve Munshaw. “It’s also getting the personnel to the fire hall first, and then going from the fire hall out to the location.”
Local Holy Spirit Catholic School Division trustee Pat Bremner questioned the priority that had been placed on the former Beaver Lumber property in town graphs presented at the open house, and how that location had come to be prioritized.
“The reason that it is yellow — and yes, it’s the old lumber yard on 47th Avenue, which is a vacant parcel that’s for sale, which is why it ranks so high — but the problem is, and the reason why it’s in yellow is that all the purple sites are within that 500 m2 circle,” said planning director Andrew Malcolm. “We had one site that we evaluated that was outside of that area, and that’s the yellow one. That site would be ideal, it would be the perfect site, however it does reduce our future growth. So are we as a town, as a council, willing to spend the money for a fire hall if you’re only going to get potentially 20 to 30 years of actual initial growth before you have to potentially remove it again? All of the purple sites give you that 85 year growth.”
Another citizen questioned why the town is so adamant to relocate the fire hall if the same situation prevails in many other communities in Alberta as is currently the status quo in Taber.
“Any community that takes economic development and low cost housing seriously, they’ve dealt with the HIRF issue, because they know that it’s 10 per cent on top of the price of a house,” said Armfelt. “Any house that you can build in Coaldale is $20,000 more expensive here. I’m not an expert, but I have contractors coming to me with that all the time.”
Kevin O’Grady suggested it is the way that developers have created new neighbourhoods in communities across the province, with houses stacked tightly together creating a greater fire hazard, that led the government to change its HIRF regulations in 2006.
O’Grady argued constructing a new hall would exceed the $2.5 million estimate, while asserting that contractors and home builders would be unlikely to pass on the reduced cost of inputs to the home buyer if the town relocated its hall, but would simply pocket the savings as enhanced profit.
Former mayor Henk DeVlieger was in favour of the relocation, suggesting the former Beaver Lumber location on 47th Avenue would satisfy development concerns for the next 30 to 40 years, while the old hall could be re-purposed for other town departments.
Federal lobbying by fire chiefs and related organizations are currently pushing for legislation which could mandate the installation of sprinkler systems in all new buildings, a development that was suggested might make discussions regarding the re-location of the fire hall a moot point in the near future.
“As a firefighter, and all personnel, we would love to see sprinkler systems in all homes, truly,” said Munshaw. “For us, they protect a lot of lives, they make the home easier to go and fight the fire in, but right now we don’t have that. Legislation can take a long time, my hope would be that it comes into play soon. As we know, federal regulation does take a long time, and we’ve seen that for years. We are lobbying as a federal agency to have safer communities.”
If the HIRF regulations have been in place since 2006, questioned another resident, why has it taken the town a decade before this issue has been raised with the public?
And beyond this, has the town set aside any funds in the past to plan ahead and help save for any potential project?
“In the town there’s about $12 million in reserves,” said Armfelt. “Again, under the way this project was started by council, we do put money away in our budget for a rainy day, and for initiatives such as this. My director of finance (John Orwa) would like to see probably closer to $20 million in the bank, but the town has a good deal in reserve right now with $12 million.”
Unsatisfied by this response, the citizen in question pressed for further details regarding whether the town had set aside funds in the past specifically allocated toward a fire hall re-location project, but this question was largely sidestepped by Armfelt in his response.
“This is a policy consideration of council. Council wants to help the town, some people on council would like to see the town grow to 10,000 people — which would be city size — within the next three and a half years. If the town could grow to 10,000 people within the next council term, then we would obtain city status. In order to do that, we are going to have to make some changes to how we do business right now. One of the ways is to promote development and make it more attractive for people to move here,” said Armfelt. “So if we can lower the cost of entry-level housing so that more people move to the community, that is one way this council could meet their policy objective of having a prosperous and growing community. Another way would be to spend that money on a recreation facility that would attract people to the town, but what council has decided is that for the benefit of incentivizing development and providing safety to residents that this is the policy direction they wanted to go with.”
More details were also sought regarding whether the development community or home builders would be required to foot a portion of the bill for a project that would largely benefit their own bottom lines at the expense of the taxpayer.
“The provincial government has changed the offsite levy, so we now have the opportunity to change the offsite levy bylaw to get below their skin, more skin in the game, to pay for this fire hall,” said Armfelt. “That is the vision, that this will primarily benefit the development community, and the building community, in town, so we would want them to bear the majority of the expense of that (site development), and we can reap that through the offsite levy that we couldn’t do six months ago.”