By Cole Parkinson
Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) are projecting a busy rest of the summer as the provincial government continues to explore ways of kickstarting the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With Alberta continuing to see lower cases of the virus, RMA has been advocating on behalf of Alberta rural municipalities and as a way to highlight some of their work, they were virtually in Municipal District of Taber council chambers during their regular meeting on July 14.
The delegation explained they typically try to meet with their member municipalities on a three-year rotation but the COVID-19 pandemic had thrown a wrench into some of those plans in 2020. Nonetheless, they were able to meet with M.D. of Taber council and reiterate how the province is hoping things shake out moving forward.
“We are in the relaunch strategy right now in Alberta, and I know you’re all aware of that. Phase 2 is a slow evolution process and we are slowly seeing more and more public interaction and public participation,” explained Al Kemmere, president of RMA. “We are moving forward with that based on that our (infection) rates in the province have been a reasonably manageable rate. That means in some places there has been a little increase in infection rates come at us in the last few days and that is a concern but again, the province will monitor that. The public health office will give us directions on that and how we move into further stages or if they try to take a step backwards. Items like (wearing) masks is something they have been talking about and according to some of the experts, it is one of the best ways to control the spread. As we heard in the last few days, the province has authorized the purchase of another 20 million masks.”
A big worry from municipalities has been around funding and Premier Jason Kenney has been making announcements left and right featuring plenty of projects in hopes to create more jobs and get the economy rolling.
“We need to try and stimulate the economy to get jobs created and try to help our businesses that are alive in our province. The province had announced around $10 million in funding with an understanding that this would create around 50,000 jobs, create or activate jobs. Many of these jobs are still there but they just need some funding. From a local municipalities point of view, we have seen $50 million directed through STIP (Strategic Transportation Infrastructure Program). They typically fund bridge improvements or roads or airports. We have not seen a list of projects that this has been applied to but if you are a municipality that receives some funding, you will be connected rather quickly so you can apply those dollars appropriately,” said Kemmere. “There is also $150 million to the Alberta Water Wastewater partnership program. This is estimated to create another 1,300 jobs. This will try to deal with some of the capital asset challenges that many member municipalities (of RMA and AUMA) are facing. The third item is $500 million in further funding for municipalities which tends to look like they are trying to do it in a partnership with the federal government where it would be a package program. We are not sure what this will all evolve into because I think the province is waiting for the feds to make up their mind and then roll it out together.”
One item council was interested in speaking about was the issue of weeds on oil and gas lease sites. As the problem has continued to persist throughout the municipality, council questioned the delegation about if there were any updates.
“We have had some meetings with government officials on this. We have talked to the people from the Orphan Well program and we’ve had some input from them to try to get a better understanding as to the limitations that are there and the processes,” continued Kemmere.
One change was Bill 12 which details more of the weed control management and it now states the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) handles those requests.
“If there are weeds on abandoned wells, you would have to contact AER and they would figure out who the owner of the well is. They would order them to provide weed control. If it is a well that is under the Orphan Well Association management, then the OWA would be responsible for providing weed control but you would just contact the AER with a complaint and they would take care of it,” added Alex Mochid, RMA policy advisor.
“One of the biggest challenges is going to be trying to find on any well, who is really responsible. Whether it’s the Orphan Well Association or the AER, or the receiver,” stated Kemmere.
Another issue relevant to southern Alberta brought forward by council was around HALO air ambulance and funding of the organization moving forward.
While municipalities had raised money throughout the past few months to keep HALO in the air, the need for long-term and stable provincial funding has been a constant concern from municipalities.
“When it comes to HALO, I have had the fortune of having many conversations with people who have been affected by HALO. I think the data shows the importance of HALO and when it is a life-threatening injury or conditions, HALO can respond and have that person into high-level care in the city of Calgary or wherever the destination is much quicker than you would be with STARS to deploy out of Calgary and get out into the southeastern part of the province. And then refuel and get back to Calgary,” replied Kemmere. “We need to have the province recognize HALO as an important facility as it does STARS and treat them as equals in terms of funding. I understand there have been some great efforts in fundraising over the last little while but we still need to look at it from a long-term financial point of view so your residents in the southeast corner of the province can have an equivalent service to protect the lives of our people. Our advocacy will continue to push for that.”
At council’s last meeting in late June, a discussion revolving around Regional Economic Development Alliances (REDA) lack of funding from the province was had.
In hoping to hear some good news on that front, M.D. council inquired if RMA had heard if more funding would be coming for REDAs in the near future.
While the government had responded to recent motions made requesting a bump in funding, RMA didn’t report good news.
“Unfortunately, it looks like the funding amount did not increase or even maintain, it looks like a bit of a reduction,” explained Tasha Blumenthal, director of external relations and advocacy. “We are anticipating when the government does their fiscal review this summer, we should have a bit more clarity on where different funding mechanisms will shift.”
M.D. council also wanted to discuss the police cost model which now sees municipalities paying for their policing.
The M.D. are scheduled to pay $194,241 in year one, $291,570 in year two, $388,481 in year three and $583,139 in years four and five.
While Reeve Merrill Harris expressed confidence and support of the local RCMP, he also made it clear the rising costs are a big concern.
“Your comment is very similar to the comments that many of our members have shared with us. The issue isn’t the RCMP isn’t doing their job, we believe they are doing their job, but they have their resources limited. I think some of the recent programs that have come from the RCMP in the last three years appear to be changing the trend of rural crime. A lot of places in the province, rural crime has diminished and credit to them for the work that they have done. The police model cost is a provincial piece, it isn’t an RMCP piece. The RCMP will deploy their resources as they believe to be necessary, whether that is front line officers or support staff within the system,” responded Kemmere. “The police cost model is something all of our members have concerns with and many of our members now are dealing with that. They are getting the bills and they have to pay the bill. The scary part is it will be increasing exponentially for the next three to four years which is adding a significant amount of cost to our residents.”