By Trevor Busch
Hard on the heels of a petition being deemed insufficient, town council has extinguished debate on the fire hall issue through a split vote mandating the project move forward.
Petition organizer Forrest Lester began door knocking in mid-March, and presented the petition to town council as a delegation at their April 9 regular meeting. Lester’s petition summary stated, “a new fire hall will increase taxes with no added benefit to the citizens of Taber. The existing fire hall is adequate to protect the citizens of Taber from the threat of house fires.” The petition also asked that “our town leaders… hold a plebiscite on building a new fire hall.” Lester reported the petition collected 958 signatures, with only 60 of those contacted declining to sign.
Under the MGA, on April 9 the petition was filed with CAO Cory Armfelt who was responsible for determining the sufficiency of the petition in accordance with Sec. 225. In Alberta, in order for a petition to be deemed sufficient it can only be signed by electors of the municipality equal in number to at least 10 per cent of population. Other required information includes an elector’s full name, the petitioner’s signature, address and contact info, and the date it was signed and witnessed, among other stipulations.
At town council’s May 14 regular meeting, a portion of the legal opinion the town received from MLT Aikins was provided for council’s consideration. According to MLT Aikins the petition “does not satisfy the criteria established in Sections 220-226 of the Municipal Government Act and, as such, is not sufficient.”
Primary deficiencies were described as lacking the petitioner’s telephone numbers or email addresses, the signatures were not officially witnessed and the petition did not include a witness affidavit, it did not include a signed statement of a petition representative, and the “qualification of the individuals to sign the petition is not described (i.e. an elector of the town).”
“As the petition is not binding on council, council may decide to take some action regardless of the sufficiency of the petition. Council should also note that undertaking a plebiscite is not binding on a future council decision.”
Following the acceptance of this information, Coun. Jack Brewin immediately moved to direct administration to ensure a 10-minute response window for all fire and ambulance first responders to residential locations within the town of Taber by relocating the emergency management centre building to an appropriate location.
“I fail to see the relevance of the motion to this particular subject,” said Coun. Garth Bekkering.
Upon further comment about the appropriateness of making the motion at that time, Brewin withdrew the motion at that point in the meeting.
“I’m not surprised that the petition was not sufficient,” said Bekkering. “The strict guidelines that the Municipal Government Act provides for a petition are somewhat onerous in my opinion. Administration offered some alternatives. I’m not making a motion, I’m just suggesting perhaps — I’m leaning in favour of alternative number three, which says that ‘council could choose to provide for the submission of a question to be voted on by the electorate, which is not binding.'”
Administration noted that if council chose to hold a plebiscite on the issue, the estimated cost would be similar to the cost of an election, around $25,000.
“I appreciate Councillor Bekkering’s position on that, but as we made motions in the previous council and are being questioned with the current council — because it says it’s not binding on the next council, I think in all honesty it’s a non-issue and it shouldn’t be brought up because if we’re not going to proceed with something, the next council could reverse that motion, and we’ve found that we have some issues now,” said Coun. Joe Strojwas. “I don’t think that number three is a valid consideration to proceed to something that’s done by the electorate. It’s not binding, so we’re in the same position. We’re going to spend some money on an item, and it may not come to fruition anyway.”
“I agree with Councillor Strojwas on that. It’s been discussed quite a bit, and it says here how the petition didn’t meet the criteria. Let’s carry on.”
Following in camera discussion in July 2017 town council had voted unanimously to set aside $1.5 million for a new fire hall building from the William Ferguson estate, with the fire hall to be dedicated and named after William Ferguson. Conversations regarding the potential relocation of the emergency services building in Taber have been ongoing since 2009. Throughout the process the town has looked at several alternatives including a full time fire department, a satellite station, or grant programs to offset construction costs. According to administration, “these alternatives may address the HIRF requirements, but do not address the other issues/impacts.”
Later during the council requests portion of the meeting, Brewin put forward an identical motion calling for a relocation of the town’s fire hall.
Speaking in support, Coun. Joe Strojwas appeared to suggest that a potential location that had been previously removed by council from consideration in reaction to citizen protest — town-owned property adjacent to Dr. Hamman and St. Pat’s schools — was now back on the table.
“We’ve had several delegations come to present to us. One of the delegations was a school delegation, and I had the occasion to do a little research and see where the new Airdrie fire department is. There’s a brand new facility built in Airdrie — six bays — right across the street from a high school, and kitty-corner from a public school. I just think that perhaps council should have done their due diligence on where this went, because other communities are building these fire halls in these school areas. Obviously, the connection between fire departments and kids is a good bonding, and I think we’re missing the boat here a little bit, to do a little more due diligence, talk to the Airdrie Fire Department because they’ve got a great facility there, and it doesn’t seem to be a concern in a community like Airdrie. Here we’re getting so much flak. I think this is something that we’ve got to proceed with, but I don’t think as a council we’re doing our due diligence. People are coming with ideas and suggestions and we’re just taking it all without weighing all the facts. We certainly need to take a look at this and move forward in a progressive way, and if it means — if this motion does pass — going back into looking at that school yard component over at the schools, talking to the Airdrie Fire Department to see why they located next to schools. I think we need to do a lot more due diligence as a council and investigate this a lot better, and have a lot more open communication on this.”
Brewin appeared to support Strojwas’ suggestion regarding the contentious location.
“With my motion, I’m giving administration the direction to do such, to find an appropriate location and proceed with this. Let’s get this ball rolling so we can get this done. Let’s get this project on the go.”
Bekkering attacked the inclusion of a 10 minute response time at all times in all locations.
“There is no way on God’s green earth that this council can guarantee that, so why even put that in a motion?”
Brewin was dismissive of this argument.
“The HIRF requirements say a 10 minute response. Calgary just passed a motion for a seven minute response. We’re not starting something new here. I do believe we have to do our due diligence to make sure we can 95 per cent of the time. We can’t control trains. But we have to have this fire station located where it’s the best spot for the town. We’re not the first community doing this. Coaldale just passed a motion to build a new fire hall in the center of town. This isn’t reinventing anything. We’re just doing what should be done.”
Strojwas asked Bekkering if there was a way to make the motion more palatable to the councillor.
“No part of that motion makes me happy. Sorry, I can’t help you there.”
Strojwas did acknowledge one concern of residents that had been expressed, calling for a funding ceiling for the project to ensure costs are wrestled under control.
“One thing about this motion that doesn’t appeal to me is the fact that there’s not a dollar figure. We have enough money in reserves to this, but this is one thing that the taxpayers brought up is that this was going to be a cost to the community, but we have enough money set aside so if we could cap this project at where we have those funds, that would certainly be one of the issues that’s been addressed by taxpayers. We have well over $2 million set aside that’s acceptable to do this.”
Switching to the offensive, Strojwas argued reducing response times was a goal for the community that is unable to be criticized.
“The other thing that was mentioned in that presentation that we had was that it wouldn’t be a benefit to all residents of the community. A reduced response time from an emergency services building — including ambulance and fire — if you’re having heart attack, if they can get to your residence two or three minutes quicker to ensure your life, and to start the process of saving your life, is that not a benefit for all residents of our community?”
Mayor Andrew Prokop was quick to second this argument.
“Absolutely. That’s absolutely true. I don’t think anybody can argue the fact that no matter what municipality you’re talking about, there’s nothing better than the most central location for an emergency services building. You just can’t argue against that. The bottom line is seconds — not minutes — seconds count. So any reduction in that time response is nothing but an overall benefit for the entire community.”
Pouring cold water over an issue that has inflamed the passions of taxpayers in recent months, council voted 5-1 to direct administration to ensure a 10-minute response window for all fire and ambulance first responders to residential locations within the town of Taber by relocating the emergency management centre building to an appropriate location. Coun. Garth Bekkering was the sole vote in opposition to the motion, while Coun. Louie Tams was absent.
Administration has stated in the past that “any decision on relocating the fire hall will not be made until a full analysis of costs and impacts on taxpayers is fully understood and shared with the public.”