Town of Slave Lake Council notebook

March 2, 2022 meeting

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Plastic dividers between councillors were conspicuously absent in council chambers for the first time in a long time at council’s first meeting in the month of March. Mayor Tyler Warman commented on it to kick off the proceedings, calling it “the most normal meeting we’ve had in two years. We can actually hear each other for a change.”

‘Five hundred emails’ welcome CAO back from vacation

Question period for the acting CAO was brief, mainly because Garry Roth was just back from vacation and not up to speed on a lot of things. However, councillor Kimberly Hughes ventured a question about the progress on setting up a business advisory council – one of the items in the town’s economic development strategy. Hughes said she had somebody in town reach out, interested in being involved.

Sorry, said Roth. He might have something on that, but it’s “buried in about 500 emails in my inbox.” He promised to get back to Hughes with the details.

Snow removal, etc.

Mayor Warman didn’t have questions for the CAO, but he did offer a few remarks on snow removal and related subjects. It’s been a challenging few weeks for the town’s public works crew, Warman said. Between periods of heavy snow and episodes of melting, along with being short-staffed, he said he thinks they have done a great job. That included a period of going eight days straight, 12 hours a day, trying to keep up with what was going on.

Having said that (he said), having an in-depth discussion about snow removal practices and policies is probably worth doing. The idea would be to “see if we can improve these guys’ lives and do a better job for our residents.”

Staffing levels: getting things done under difficult circumstances

Council must have asked for a report on the staffing situation at the town, because one was on the agenda. To no one’s surprise, it included the news that the past year saw a lot of gaps due to illness, with available staff scrambling and adjusting to keep the necessary work going.

This was particularly acute in the first quarter of 2021, council heard. With 89 FTE (full time equivalent) positions budgeted for, the town had only 62 FTE during the those first three months. By the end of the year that had climbed to 82.

“We currently have seven vacant positions,” said Schmidt’s written report.

Recruitment efforts for those continue; also for summer positions.

Mayor Warman made a point of thanking town staff for dealing with various challenges over the past year or so.

“They rolled up their sleeves to get things done,” he said.

Minister responds on transmission tariffs

In council’s package was a letter from Dale Nally the provincial Associate Minister of Natural Gas and Electricity. The topic had to do with the system of charging customers for the cost of electrical transmission. The Alberta Electrical System Operator (AESO) has proposed a change to this system that would (or could) result in certain heavy users of power paying much more than they do now. After having been informed by one of those customers (Slave Lake Pulp) of the dire consequences such a change could have for its ability to continue operating, council wrote a letter to the province expressing its concerns. Nally’s letter was a response to that.

Nally encouraged the town to participate in the hearings being held by the Alberta Utilities Commission. He also said the AUC and AESO are ‘arms-length’ agencies, and the government does not interfere in their business.

“Have we expressed our concerns to the AUC?” asked councillor Steve Adams.

We have, said Warman.

The proposed changes to the power transmission tariffs could affect more than just big industrial users. Councillor Kim Hughes said both the local library and the Peace Library System are requesting that the town lobby on their behalf on the same issue. Apparently they are concerned about their power bills rising. She made a motion to have the town send a letter on behalf of the two organizations, which was carried.

Nally said in his letter that new rates are proposed to go into effect in January 2024. Further proposed is for power customers who face a 10 per cent or more increase, “the full impact of the new tariff would not be applied until 2029.”

Dale Nally

Assessment appeal services

The town is required to appoint a board to hear appeals of property value assessment. In practice, it seldom happens, but in case it does, the appeal opportunity must be there.

Towns can appoint their own appeal boards, but it’s tough to find people, so four years ago, council decided to engage the Capital Region Assessment Services Commission to provide the service. Presenting the report, director of finance Roland Schmidt said in the past four years, only two matters were sent to the board. In practice, most questions or disagreements about property value assessment are dealt with before getting to the appeal board stage.

“Generally, the first step is to call the town,” said Schmidt.

Council went ahead and made the four required motions.

Reassurance on housing

In council’s package was a letter from Seniors and Housing Minister Josephine Pon, on the topic of affordable housing in Slave Lake. It was apparently in response to concerns expressed by mayor and council when they met with Pon at a conference back in November.

In the letter Pon refers to an arrangement between the province and a private developer in Slave Lake, whereby 20 ‘affordable housing units,’ and 20 ‘community housing units,’ are being developed.

“I understand your concern regarding the evaluation and monitoring of the project,” Pon says. She goes on to assure council that work is underway and is being monitored, regarding compliance with codes, design requirements and such. Pon also says discussions are going on between the developer and the Lesser Slave Lake Regional Housing Authority regarding tenant selection.

‘A lot of balls bouncing around’

Mayor Warman wrapped up the meeting with some comments on things that have been happening lately. Actually, one of them was happening right at that moment, in the plaza outside the town office – a rally in support of Ukraine.

“It’s nice to see the entire world stepping up and saying this is not acceptable,” Warman said. “I’m glad we’re doing something.”

On the new phase of COVID restriction-lifting, Warman added a bit to what he’d said about it at the start of the meeting.

“I know everything’s not fixed,” he said. “The risk is not gone, but I hope it’s a course we can stay on.”

Warman also joked about not being able to recognize some people without their masks, “and some of them work for me!”

Further on the topic of increasing costs, Warman noted the recent notification of a jump in RCMP salaries, which alone will account for a three per cent increase in the town’s budget. There’s more to come on that, Warman said, because salaries had been frozen for five years, and retroactive increases are expected. Policing costs are big part of the town budget, and getting bigger.

Add that to the rising cost of capital projects (see story on Page 1 and 2), and “I don’t even know where that money’s going to come from.”

Not helping the picture are the prospects for financial help from the province – despite the good news about the provincial budget. It’s great that the province is balancing its books, Warman said – but municipalities have to do that every year. It’s getting harder to do that and one reason is provincial support for capital projects is declining. MSI funding is being cut back, and despite the rosy provincial finance picture, no change to that has been announced.

“There’s a lot of balls bouncing around, and none of them look good,” Warman said.

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