By Trevor Busch
Declaring early as the incumbent for the Division 4 seat at the Municipal District of Taber council table in the upcoming Oct. 16 municipal election, Ben Elfring intends to bring his considerable experience in municipal government back to chambers.
“It’s something I really enjoy, and it brings a lot of knowledge, and you see a lot of the back door information that isn’t accessible to a lot of people,” said the four-term councillor. “I find it interesting, and I love dealing with people. Being retired, I have the time and commitment to represent the people of my division, and all of the people of the M.D. of Taber.”
Division 4 represents northeast Taber, and one of the key issues constituents have identified is a solar project that has been planned for construction.
“There is an issue that we have in my division, we have the solar project on White Ash Road, that the residents there are strictly opposed to, and I am, too. We’ve had conversations with our MLAs on the NDP side, expressing our concerns. It’s not the right place — we are not against solar and wind power — but there’s a place for it. These people have made a big financial commitment, and this is the way of life that they want, and I know they don’t want to be sitting there looking at a bunch of solar panels. And I can respect that. There should be a place for these, and we’re not opposed to it — it’s going to be great tax revenue for the municipality — we’re trying to work with the solar company to find a different location. That is one of my major concerns in my division,” said Elfring. “Solar and wind seems like it’s going to be the future, and whether we like it or not, it’s change for everybody, and I guess it’s the fear of the unknown, what’s going to happen, and I guess the people in Edmonton have the power to decide that — all we can do at our level is advocate for our ratepayers and citizens, and express to Edmonton their concerns, and wants and needs.”
Sweeping changes to the Municipal Government Act coming into effect in 2017 will have an impact on municipalities and councils, as an attempt to get neighbouring municipalities to work more closely together on projects.
“There’s a lot of changes coming with the Municipal Government Act. They’re revamping the whole act. There’s new agreements between different municipalities, our neighbours. We have two years to do them, and we have just gotten a lot of the information of what they want in these, and I feel I have the time and energy, and the knowledge to tackle these,” said Elfring. “These agreements are basically going to be the guiding ways of how we do business, with our neighbours and our municipalities, these are agreements that we have to follow. There will be negotiations between municipalities, there’s going to be different things like water, fire agreements, stuff like that. Stuff that you have to agree on — and if you don’t agree on them, you don’t agree on them — but it’s trying to work better with your neighbours, and for us, we have six M.D.’s and counties that we have to do one for, and those, we’ve applied for a $200,000 grant from the government, which we received. So there won’t be any cost to the taxpayer. In our municipality we have Vauxhall, the Town of Taber, and the Village of Barnwell that we have to do these agreements with. We’ve done one with Barnwell, and it’s at second reading, and so we’ve come to an agreement on our future as partners in our community. Vauxhall we’re doing right now, Taber we’ll probably do a little bit later, as that one is going to probably be a lot longer, and more of a process.”
Land that is currently under the administration of the province, Elfring would like to see returned to the control and jurisdiction of the municipality.
“Over the last 13 years, we’ve gotten over 60,000 acres in tax recovery land back from the province. There are some lands they’ve deemed sensitive, and we would like that land back, whether they trade land with the M.D. or whatever, but these lands are a lot in the grazing leases, and we feel that we could take better care of our own lands rather than people in Edmonton. There’s drainage systems that we are looking at doing for storm water. There’s one just to the south of us. We’ve gotten a $2.2 million government grant to do drainage south of the main canal on Highway 36 south of Taber.”
Taking a look into the future, Elfring maintains it is vital to keep taxes low throughout the municipality to meet upcoming challenges, and attract new business and industry.
“To get a good tax base, keep our taxes low. We’re one of the municipalities with the lowest tax rates. We’d like to keep it that way. Oil and gas, as we see it right now, it’s really slow, and there’s a problem with a lot of these junior companies going bankrupt, and we’re losing the tax revenue. That is one of the biggest issues. Water is another, for our communities to have potable water, and not just for our communities, it’s for all the rural people. It’s a major cost, but it’s a necessity. To have enough potable water to make industry want to come to our area, whether it’s the Town of Taber or the M.D. of Taber, it’s to make our community more sustainable would be the biggest thing to see growth in our communities.”
Battleground issues that have arisen between the M.D. of Taber and Town of Taber during the present council term — such as the M.D.’s termination of a shared fire service — have largely been addressed, though not always on the most friendly of terms, admits Elfring.
“I think the things that have been an issue between our neighbours have been addressed, some not friendly, but our neighbour’s problems are their problems, our problems are our problems. If we can’t come to an agreement, let’s go our own ways respectfully, and respect their decision, and hopefully they can respect our decision. Our wants and needs are two different things at times, and at the end of the day we have to look after our own ratepayers and what we feel is best for our ratepayers.”
Securing new potable water sources is needed step if the municipality hopes to attract large industries in future, according to Elfring.
“For development, right now would be to get industry. We have water, but potable water. There’s been a lot of changes in the fresh produce market, where they have to be washed in potable water. So to get potable water for some of these industries to come in to our area is huge. So to me, potable water is huge if you want the community to grow.”
Recreation projects are analyzed on a case-by-case basis, added Elfring, but council attempts to make sure all communities are dealt with on an even keel.
“What we’ve done with the shooting range out there, it’s been phenomenal. The RCMP are doing a lot of training out there — not just for southern Alberta, but for the whole province — so hopefully they can stay in Taber, spending some of their money at hotels and businesses — so it’s a win-win for everybody. For recreation, it’s really tough as the M.D. because we have so many communities within our boundaries that give financial grants to — Grassy Lake, Barnwell, Town of Taber, Town of Vauxhall, Enchant and Hays. It’s really hard — you do one for one, you should do one for the other. We have funded lots of projects in the Town of Taber, just recently the spray park, we donated to that. We donated to the gymnastics club, to the Vauxhall swimming pool. It’s something that you have to weigh out, you can’t play favourites, you have to support all of them.”
Perceptions that an air of coldness now prevails between the M.D. and Town of Taber are not entirely accurate, says Elfring.
“It’s a process, and what you hear a lot is you guys don’t get along with the Town of Taber, and the Town of Taber doesn’t get along with you. It’s not that. As I said before, they have their needs and we have our needs, and if you can work together, great — the walking trail is a prime example. Trying to work together on projects is crucial, and the dialogue is out there, and we’re working together.”
Elfring stands behind his record as a four-term councillor for the M.D. of Taber, and while recognizing that the job of a politician isn’t always easy, he doesn’t regret any of the decisions he has had a hand in making.
“I think I’ve served the residents well, listened to them. We’ve made decisions that weren’t palatable to all citizens, but in a democracy, majority rules. It’s just one of those things. It’s not always popular being a politician, you have to make decisions that are tough, you’re going to get some naysayers and there’s going to be some things said about you — it’s just part of the process, or the political game. It’s just not all roses and honey — there are some tough decisions that you have to make.”