M.D. of Lesser Slave River Council notebook

Jan. 27, 2021 meeting

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Election prep

Council’s first order of business was to appoint a returning officer to look after next fall’s municipal election. Council did this by way of a motion; while they were at it, they appointed CAO Barbara Miller as deputy returning officer.

Not mentioned at the meeting, but worth mentioning here, is that the nomination period for reeve and councillors is already open, should anyone care to declare early and get started down the campaign trail. This is a big change from the former way of doing things, which limited the nomination period to a two-hour window on one day about a month before voting day.

Broadband

Council was asked to approve the production of a “generic letter of support” from the M.D. to firms applying for federal funds for broadband improvement to rural areas. There is new federal cash available for such projects, council heard.

“Letter of support may result in successful application and ultimately the provision of high-speed internet within the areas of the M.D. identified as eligible for funding,” said the written report for council. “There are no financial implications to the M.D. LSR.”

Councillors had lots to say and questions to ask about the state of communications service to rural areas in the M.D. generally. For example:
“In lots of our M.D. we don’t even have phone service,” said councillor Robert Esau.

“Towers are overloaded,” said councillor Brad Pearson. “Even with line of sight.”

Councillor Darcie Acton pointed out the problem and talk about what to do about it has been going on for at least a decade. One obstacle, she continued, is that broadband isn’t considered a utility, but rather a “nice-to-have.” One thing to consider, she said, is the affect lousy internet service has on business in the area. Some simply can’t or won’t operate without the adequate bandwidth.

Council voted in favour of the motion to draft and send a letter (or letters) of support.

Council also approved a related motion, to encourage public participation in a bandwidth speed survey, being conducted by the Rural Municipalities Association.

Aviation: ‘Don’t reduce services!’

Federal support for rural and northern airports may be in jeopardy. This dire news came up at a recent meeting of the Northern Alberta Elected Leaders association. Apparently NAV Canada is doing a review on service levels, which could alter the status of affected airports.

“It’s scary,” said reeve Kerik, adding that it could result in an airport becoming “non-certified. Then you’re like a private airport.”

On the other hand, Slave Lake has not shown up on any list of airports under consideration for service reduction.

“I would hope our airport is fairly safe,” said councillor Sandra Melzer. “We have a contract with Forestry. You would think…”

Council resolved to send a “Letter of support for continued rural northwestern aviation services.”

Double hit on uncollected taxes

M.D. taxpayers are being forced to pick up the tab for delinquent oil companies and councillor Brad Pearson thinks something should be done about it.

Pearson added the item to the agenda, following receipt of a letter from the County of Stettler, which is advocating government action on the issue.

What’s specifically being targeted is the seniors’ housing requisition portion of the property tax bill. The M.D. may not be able to collect this money from certain defaulting parties, but it still has to submit the full seniors requisition to the government. The same thing happens with the education portion of the tax bill, Pearson pointed out, but the government has provided relief for municipalities via a program called ‘PERC’ (Provincial Education Requisition Credit). Something similar should be in place for the seniors’ portion, he said.

“It’s not fair to the taxpayers,” he said.

Reeve Kerik said he agrees, one hundred per cent.

Council approved a letter supporting the County of Stettler lobby on the issue, with copies to go to interim Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver (“Keep poking the bear,” said Kerik. “Something might happen.”) and Premier Jason Kenney.

“Maybe that’s something our MLA can get up and speak about,” said Pearson.

Shuttlebus funding

The M.D. has been managing a fund for a regional shuttle bus on behalf of the Regional Tri-Council for the past few years. It’s not M.D. money – it’s left over from an envelope the tri-council dedicated from disaster recovery funds in 2011 or 2012. The M.D. wants to wrap up that fund and if there is any left, turn it over to the Regional Housing Authority, which operates the shuttle bus. However, council heard, it’s not clear how much is left over, where it stands and so on.

“We need to do some major reconciliation,” said CAO Barb Miller. “I’m trying to pull it all together.”

Board reports

Ag Service Board – Councillor Sandra Melzer said the provincial ASB conference went pretty well, all things considered. The main thing to be considered was the unconventional format. She described it as “well run.”
Councillor Robert Esau had a very different experience.
“The links didn’t work,” he said. “That kinda peed me off.”
Esau had more to say on the subject.
“I’ll be so happy when this Zoom thing is over,” he said, adding after a slight pause… “I might be over first.”

Community Futures – Councillor Brad Pearson said the provincial government has topped up the amount it has set aside for small business stimulus loans on easy terms. Amounts of $20,000 are available, and if you pay it back in a prescribed time period, $10,000 is forgiven.
“Uptake is substantial,” Pearson said. He added $1.2 million had be loaned out in the first round of $40,000 stimulus loans.
Similar story at CF Tawatinaw, said councillor Melzer. $1m loaned out and seven applications so far for the new loans.
Offering his view on Community Futures as a community asset, councillor Esau said he’s benefited from the services in the past and “I encourage council to stay connected.”

Slave Lake Housing Authority – Councillor Pearson reported eight residents in designated assisted living at the lodge in Slave Lake have received COVID vaccinations. No cases of the virus have showed up at the lodge, which is good news.
There are a dozen vacancies or so in the lodge at the moment.
As far as the $4.5 million the province has set aside for a new affordable housing project, Pearson said “We’d like to capture that money, with a build that is suitable for our community.” Twenty units had been proposed. Maybe that needs to be pared down to be affordable, said Pearson. Maybe 14 units would work.
“We’re looking forward to a meeting” on it, he said.

Watershed Council – Councillor Darcie Acton’s report on this organization included the news that the entire meeting had to be conducted without video or audio, due to technical difficulties.
“The only way we could communicate was by typing into the chat box our comments.”
Somehow the group managed to get some business done, on its strategic plan. One idea that came up, Acton said, is about more effective ways municipalities could communicate the responsibilities of water’s edge property ownership to prospective buyers, before they buy it. Could realtors be asked to do this?
They could be, said Pearson, but given that realtors’ priority is moving property, “it might not work that great.”
Pearson said he’s more concerned about the actions of people on tributaries of the lake, rather than people who live on the lake.
Acton said engaging property owners along water bodies generally is a goal of the Watershed Council.

Chatting with the Premier

Reeve Kerik reported on a conference call meeting he and other municipal leaders from the Lesser Slave Lake constituency had recently with Premier Jason Kenney and Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver. The subject of the meeting was representation, following the expulsion of Lesser Slave MLA Pat Rehn from the UCP caucus.

“McIver said he’d be willing to take our calls at any time,” Kerik said
The municipal reps were also introduced to Peace River MLA Dan Williams, who offered to be a contact with the UCP government.

Also learned at the meeting is that the province wants to release more land for agricultural use.

This prompted a skeptical comment from councillor Esau. There has been Crown land offered for sale in the area before, he said, but farmers seldom end up buying any of it. They are outbid by companies interested in it for growing trees or by rich folks who keep it for recreational purposes. Of around 100 sections, he said, maybe three were bought by farmers.

Access to those new pieces of farmland is another sticky issue. Councillor Pearson said there is “no payback” for the M.D. in building such roads.

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