September 29 and 30, 2020 the County of Wetaskiwin held their Public Engagement Sessions in Mulhurst Bay and Alder Flats. The sessions, which were originally set for the spring but delayed due to COVID-19 concerns, are part of the County’s consistent effort to seek public opinion on potential changes that the County will face in the coming year.
The Public Engagement Sessions were set up to allow County to deliver possible scenarios for budget and service reductions or increases, as well a question period and a round table discussion where residents could speak directly to members of County Council to address their concerns or ask further questions.
The September Public Engagement Sessions focused on the proposed oil and gas assessment model review, changes to the province’s police costing model, roads, and hamlet revitalization.
Changes to the policing model came down from the Government of Alberta in December 2019 resulting in rural and urban municipalities contributing to front-line policing costs which were previously covered by the provincial government.
Before the changes were handed down the County had already been approached by the RCMP to provide additional financial support. Because of this the County began paying for an enhanced RCMP member out of the Breton detachment and Crime Analyst out of Wetaskiwin in January 2019 at a cost of $270, 000.
Coupled with the new model, the County of Wetaskiwin is paying more for policing with no guarantee of increased levels of service and a potential for a decreased level of service.
Under the Police Costing Model the County of Wetaskiwin is unable to invest directly into local policing and the money they pay into policing, a total of $274,800 in 2020 with an increase to $855,012 by 2023, will become a permanent expense in the County’s budget.
At the moment it is still uncertain whether rural residents will see an increased police presence to match the cost and the overall levels of service to County residents.
In July the County received information on the proposed assessment model review for oil and gas wells and pipelines, which comes as a result of the provincial government providing tax breaks to oil and gas companies.
However, the County has made it known that they are very concerned about the potential impacts of these proposed changes and the significant impacts it will have on the sustainability of many rural communities in the County and have even lobbied to the provincial government on behalf of their residents with their concerns.
The proposed changes could result in the County losing anywhere from $1.9 million to $3.78 million in revenue in the first year. Options to handle the revenue loss could include raising residential taxes, raising non-residential taxes, or cutting level of service provided by the County.
One of the main changes to levels of service discussed at the public engagement session was roads and road maintenance.
Included in road and road maintenance is the levels of service for snow removal: sand and truck snow plowing as well as patrol officers—snow plowing, grading of roads, and dust control.
Discussions during the round table session focused on for each of these elements what County residents would prefer or their how they regard the current levels of service and the needs for each one.
“I really appreciated how engaging the people were at our events. There was good conversation around the tables and lots of good questions,” says County of Wetaskiwin Reeve, Terry Van de Kraats. “The participants were very understanding of the situation the County is in and challenges we face moving forward.”
A particular topic of contention during the discussions was regarding the grading of gravel roads, which some residents deemed to be done too infrequently and improperly. Others believed that the County could decrease the level of grading service to make the budget they are working with balance.
Proposed options for the grading of County roads included keeping the level of service at status quo: 12 patrol areas over 160 km which costs the County $1.462 million; decreased level of service: 11 patrol areas over 173 km which would cost $1.34 million; or an increased level of service: 13 patrol areas over 148 km which would cost $1.58 million.
Reeve Van de Kraats believes the Public Engagement Sessions were very successful and, “as we continue through these uncertain times the County will make every effort to do what is best for our residents.”
The County of Wetaskiwin currently has a public engagement survey on their website here where you can submit your opinion on the levels of service for road maintenance in the County.