By Greg Price
The debate over the need of a new fire hall/emergency building in the centre of Taber looks like it will not be dying down anytime soon.
That fact was abundantly clear earlier this month when council chambers were bursting at the seems with interested residents who attended a public hearing on a land-use bylaw that rezoned properties in question that were to be purchased in anticipation of building new emergency services building on 50th street near 52nd Avenue.
Ever since it was announced last year that $1.5 million of the $2.4 the Town of Taber received as a beneficiary of William Ferguson’s estate would be put towards a new emergency services building, located somewhere near the centre of Taber, rightly or wrongly, controversy has followed its path.
I declare myself Switzerland in a yay or nay need for a new emergency services building, having more of a concern over the process that got us here rather than whatever the final decision may be.
I’ve had many a coffee-row conversation with many people over these last two years about this topic and my viewpoint has stayed the same. If this is something that town council and administration truly believes the town needs — then own it. Despite what at least seems on the surface as mounting opposition to the project, if there are councillors out there who see this as a political hill to die on (as I have heard from some residents anyway, they are not going to have a short memory when it comes to the next municipal election), I admire them for their conviction in their ideals.
Unfortunately, as far as public relations go for a new emergency services building, that conviction has been muted by the ball being fumbled from the very beginning with a lack of transparency on this topic.
Right from the very start with how an inheritance of $2.4 million would be spent to possible building locations being put on and off the table etc. have been done predominately in-camera with closed-door sessions, away from the eyes of the public. As some on council have pointed out, yes they are the ones that were elected to make decisions for the public. But, that does not mean they get free reign of shielding the public from hearing the logic in how those decisions are arrived at. It’s a head scratcher of reasoning of how to spend public money, given the many different needs of a municipality, and discussion on taking pieces of land already owned by the town off the table for fire hall consideration, are considered worthy of in-camera discussion according to the Municipal Government Act. Some in-camera sessions involving a potential new emergency services building have not been measured in minutes, but in hours. To some on council’s credit, judging by dialogue at its public hearing earlier this month, they have recognized this fact and have made pledges to open dialogue more leading up to January’s open house. Whether that is simply lip service remains to be seen.
In an Oct. 24 story in the Taber Times, councillor Joe Strojwas suggested there was a ‘silent majority’ in support of the fire hall project that could sway the tide of public opinion. Again, if this majority does exist, in the interest of public relations, it’s not doing a very good job, as it needs to be silent no more. Although given ample opportunity to speak at the public hearing earlier this month, the ‘silent majority’ was relatively quiet compared to the opposite side in council chambers. Also, the open house back in February netted very little as far as a swell of support in the Q&A session anyway.
Letters to the Editor have been few and far between in the pro side and beyond a home builders delegation back in November 2016, organized delegations have not made their way into open and public council chambers waving the flag of support. If there is a silent majority out there of support for the fire hall project, it needs to be mobilized and heard sooner rather than later and it must be composed of your average Joe Lunch Box Taber resident and not special interest groups for it to grow in prominence.
Conversation has swirled around the Times newsroom involving a potential new emergency services building, along with coffee row where I’ve personally been stopped on the street many a time to discuss the issue. Questions that hopefully will be answered to residents’ satisfaction at the next open house council is holding in January.
Here are but a few questions that residents have posed at me or to me while chatting on coffee row and ones I have myself.
MONEY BACK GUARANTEE: A big push towards a new emergency services building has been the more affordable housing that will result if a 10-minute response time can be guaranteed 90 per cent of the time, as input costs towards house building will be lower, like not requiring any sprinkler systems (quoted by homebuidlers at between $10,000-$15,000 extra in past stories). Some numbers bantered about with what constitutes affordable housing has been between $250,000-$300,000. Is it fair to ask if a four to six per cent bump in your cost ratio is a big enough needle mover to have someone commute from Barnwell/Coaldale/Lethbridge to Taber for their job when you factor increased gas/car maintenance and hassle (winter driving etc) driving back and forth each day? Was four to six per cent increased housing costs the sole reason supposedly a major agricultural business (cough…cough…Cavandish…cough…cough) chose not to set up shop here, or were there other mitigating circumstances at work such as infrastructure perks that Taber simply could not offer?
Also, what guarantees are there for a home buyer that the developer cost savings for input costs will be passed onto the consumer? If in a free market system, a developer has found they can sell a unit at ‘X’ amount of dollars, they are not going to simply drop the price out of the goodness of their hearts just because their overhead is less…that’s not how capitalism works.
CONFUSION: People have wondered out loud to me if only the most expensive options are being told to the public in being HIRF compliant. I certainly cannot answer that question given I have no home building expertise whatsoever. Can high-density housing still be put closer together with lot sizes from a design tweak that does not include pricey sprinklers? Having houses with no side windows I’ve heard is an option, but again, would need to be confirmed at something like January’s open house. I’m no Harry Homemaker, but if I’m buying cheap, affordable housing, having windows on the sides of my house is the least of my concerns, especially if they are houses that are really close together. I don’t want Nosey Ned being able to peer into my house with ease from his house, I would probably request no side windows, as even with bathrooms, fans are commonplace now.
COST ANALYSIS: Feelers were put out for the design build of the Taber Emergency Services Building and the lowest bid was 32 per cent higher than the original estimate of $2.5 million. Residents have voiced to me their concerns of the unknown of what the final price tag for such a building will be and would have felt more comfortable spending such dollars if the Town of Taber and M.D. of Taber were still one fire department with a higher volume of calls. There is the philosophical debate if public safety should be measured in dollars and cents, but there are tax-paying residents who are doing just that, right or wrong in people’s eyes as part of the dialogue for a new emergency services building.
TIME MACHINE: Some people have noted the benefit of a centralized fire hall if it was manned by a full-time, paid fire service already ready to go at the station. But given the nature of volunteerism, a centralized fire hall has some residents wondering out loud just how much time is really going to be saved. Calls happen at all times of the day and night and time of the year (poor weather in winter/fall etc), with volunteers scattered everywhere throughout the town at their homes and places of work. It is not just how close a firehall is to potential fires in town, but also how close the volunteers are to the hall with all the other mitigating circumstances.
There is still much discussion to be made about a proposed new emergency services building from now until the open house scheduled for January. Whether you are for or against it, I hope it’s not the volunteer firefighters who get caught in the cross fire where things are seen as getting personal. Much like when the Taber Police Service was put between a rock and a hard place with the controversy surrounding the Community Standards Bylaw, these are people who simply have a job to do, and they will do it to the best of their ability with the resources they are allotted.
Politics aside, at the core, these are people who look after our safety at much sacrifice to themselves, where the people need to be separated from the fire hall debate which has turned into a political hot potato.