A teleconference, organized by the Ponoka and District Chamber of Commerce between local business owners and representatives from all the levels of government, to discuss the response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, was held April 3.
On the call were Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr, Ponoka County CAO Charlie Cutforth, Ponoka Mayor Rick Bonnett, town CAO Albert Flootman and various community members.
Each government representative gave brief updates on the measures being taken regarding COVID-19.
Government of Alberta
MLA Ron Orr says the provincial government is working to manage health care risks and flattening the curve so the health care system isn’t overwhelmed. It’s also managing the economic concerns of the oil price crash.
An economic recovery council has been formed and has started working on a plan for long-term economic recovery once the public health crisis is over.
The province has responded with various supports for businesses, though Orr says there “isn’t enough money to save everything whole.”
Chamber executive secretary Heather Bendera asked if there were any timelines in place for how long supports would last.
Orr answered that there are definite termination dates in place for provincial supports such as rental protection, WCB, utilities and the tourism levy.
The Alberta government is now estimating six to eight weeks before COVID-19 peaks.
Orr assured the participants that the Lacombe and Ponoka hospitals have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), but have minimal ventilators.
Ponoka Hospital and Care Centre does not have a ventilator or an ICU.
Lacombe hospital has one ventilator, but has the added complication of having an attached long-term care facility, and as such, would be one of the last places considered to house COVID-19 patients.
The current provincial strategy is to send patients from central Alberta requiring ventilation to Red Deer or Calgary.
Orr says the highest concern facing health care workers at this time is the stress and anxiety of putting their lives on the line, as well as their families.
Orr also mentioned the public health fines and penalties now in place for those who don’t comply with legislated regulations of the Public Health and Emergency Management acts.
Fines range from $1,000 to more serious penalties that would go before the court, for actions up to causing death, with fines reaching $500,000.
Another challenge currently facing the province is funding the debt, as the province is n0w paying double the interest rate than the federal government pays to sell bonds.
Town of Ponoka
“We’re in a very tight situation at this point,” said Mayor Rick Bonnett, referring to the town’s and residents’ finances.
Bonnett says the town doesn’t feel the need to enact a local state of emergency at this point because there are already many provincial and federal programs in place now and health care falls under provincial jurisdiction.
The town is working on setting up a virtual emergency command centre, has announce a 90-day deferral for utilities, and the option for individuals and businesses to pull out of the automatic property tax payment program.
The town is asking, however, that anyone who is able to pay their taxes to continue to do so, as without a cash flow, the town may be forced to cut services.
The province has cancelled the increase in education property tax that had been announced, which helps with cash flow somewhat, but those funds eventually have to be paid. The tax, which will remain at last year’s level, will not be collected by the province for six months.
The mayor also mentioned that the town cancelled shifts for 23 casual workers with the closure of recreational facilities, amounting to 30 per cent of the town’s workforce.
“We’re all in unknown territory,” said Bonnett, adding the town is open to ideas, and there’s nothing that can’t be achieved if everyone works together.
CAO Albert Flootman says the town is reviewing its final budget and considering adjustments that would reduce the tax increase to zero per cent.
A cash flow analysis is currently underway. The town made the decision to go ahead with its capital projects, as most if not all, are funded through reserves or MSI funding.
These projects, contracted to either local or central Alberta companies, will provide short-term jobs.
Ponoka County CAO Charlie Cutforth says Ponoka County is also choosing not to declare a local state of emergency at this time.
A state of emergency provides additional powers, such as closing businesses, but as the province has already done that, there isn’t really a need.
As county residents are already spread out, there is less concern for community transmission, as long as people continue to follow the rules.
The county has some reserves, which were intended for bridge repairs and road projects, which may now be used to help with cash flow.
The county has had a line of credit in place for many years, but it has not been used to a great extent since 1990, and has long since lapsed. It may become necessary to get a new line of credit approved.
All county capital projects are currently on hold while the county evaluates its budget as a whole.
The county has no immediate need to layoff any of its staff as it already has a small number of employees, and laying anyone off would result in a reduction of services, negatively impacting tax payers, Cutforth says.
“We are absolutely confident we will survive this and will ensure all our tax payers will survive this as well.”
Ponoka and District Chamber of Commerce
Chamber president Barry Grant said it’s a “great time to be living in a smaller community,” as Ponoka doens’t have the same over-crowding issues that larger centres are seeing.
Grant added it’s great to see how businesses are helping to keep people safe, and that the chamber will do all it can to support the businesses that are still open.
Ponokalive.ca has a list of resources and business supports that are available.