By Trevor Busch
With both municipalities fully engaged in a war of words over the Municipal District of Taber’s recent decision to create their own fire service, Fire Chief Steve Munshaw is still assessing the impact of the decision on the future of the Town of Taber’s emergency operations.
“This announcement was very surprising, as a five year contract was signed in December with the town,” said Munshaw last week. “I believe the contract was very fair, as you see Clause 2 of the contract states: ‘The parties may jointly agree to review this contract or amend the schedules from time to time during the Term of Contract provided both parties agree to such review and amendment.’ Roughly this shows a 42 per cent M.D. and 58 per cent town split in the fire department budget.”
The town is hoping an open public forum on the issue, scheduled for March 23 at 7 p.m. at the Heritage Inn, may convince the M.D. of Taber council to reconsider their decision.
According to the M.D., the new rural service is set to start March 1, 2017, and will serve divisions 1-4 of the M.D. of Taber. In their announcement earlier this month, the M.D. made it clear that 2015 negotiations for a new fire agreement had not been satisfactory in “establishing an agreement which is acceptable to the Municipal District of Taber for the long term.”
In his estimation, Munshaw indicated the M.D.’s new service would require a substantial investment in infrastructure and equipment before becoming fully operational.
“This will have two fire services with virtually identical needs for equipment and man power, one that responses to the M.D. calls and one responding to calls within the town limits.”
In a statement in their previous release, Reeve Brian Brewin asserted the M.D.’s preference for the terms of the previous agreement, while indicating the new agreement provided for no input by the M.D. into budgeting or policy development, nor provided the desired level of accountability.
The dollars and cents of the M.D.’s annual contribution to the current shared service will also have an impact on the future of the town’s fire service, according to Munshaw.
The shared service was budgeted $757,356 in the 2016 budget, excluding capital reserve contributions but including amortization.
“Of (those) expenses, the M.D. is contributing $221,472 to the fire department in 2016. This is because we are taking out $96,528 off their $318,000 amount owed for the purchase of the jointly owned assets. Therefore the percentage they are contributing is 42 per cent of the operating expenses in 2016. However, the cash output for 2016 is only 29.2 per cent, because of the reduction of the $96,528. That being said, of the contribution of $318,000, $62,930 is a contribution due to the capital purchases that are supposed to be made over the next 15 years. Then in the police budget they are also contributing $23,970 ($3.50 per capita) for the operations of the dispatch center.”
Munshaw doesn’t anticipate major changes to the operation or further development of the town’s new fire training centre located in the northwest industrial area.
“The fire training center is there for everyone. This was designed to train firefighters to do their job safely and that’s all that matters. The centre will continue to be a hub for training in southern Alberta and support all firefighters.”
Competition for limited volunteer resources from Taber and area could prove to inaugurate an adversarial relationship between the two departments before the M.D.’s service is even fully operational.
“We currently ask a lot from our volunteers,” said Munshaw. “Between calls and training, to ask that of the same volunteer base could prove to be too taxing. We need to maintain the same numbers of members as we currently have as they are volunteers and their work and family lives take them away from the area at different times.”
Reviewing a statement by volunteer firefighters, Munshaw concluded that with a flurry of discourse over the issue at the political level between both municipalities, the concerns of these individuals also need to be front and centre as key stakeholders.
“They would like to see both parties back at the negotiation table. The group believes that the decision is detrimental to the level of service that will be provided to the town, M.D. and Village of Barnwell if this decision stands. There’s no winner in this conflict. They believe the creation of a fire commission, or possibly using a mediator, could prove to be beneficial.”