SUNDRE — Individual municipalities do not typically get to dictate what a provincial government should or should not do.
But councils may at their discretion take an official stance for or against government proposals that stand to impact their constituents and communities.
With the municipal election looming ahead, earlier this spring The Albertan reached out to Sundre’s mayor and two mayoral candidates this spring to see where they stand on arguably the biggest issues facing Albertans.
Coal industry expansion
Mayor Terry Leslie and councillors Cheri Funke as well as Richard Warnock — who have both announced their intentions to fill the hot seat left by the outgoing mayor — were all asked in separate interviews whether they support the provincial government’s plans for the coal mining industry in the Eastern Slopes, and why.
All said that concerns people have expressed regarding fears of potentially contaminated water are totally legitimate and must be addressed. But none of them expressed outright opposition to expanding coal operations on the Eastern Slopes, either.
“Coal mining has to be somewhere else, where environmental standards aren’t the way that we have,” said Leslie.
“I would sooner that our environmental standards were in place, rather than some developing countries,” he said.
When looking at resource extraction — be it gravel, oil and gas, precious metals and minerals, or metallurgical coal — one has to consider those activities are in large part driven by modern consumerism, he said.
“I can’t say that I don’t want to see coal coming out, because I’m driving a vehicle down the road right now,” he said while on a hands free device. “That steel had to come from some place.”
That all being said, regardless of the type of resource being extracted, Leslie said the process must follow a vigorous and legitimate regulatory framework that allows everybody to ask questions and get answers.
“I’m not one that will take a stand that says there will be no coal extraction, there should be no gravel extraction, there can’t be oil and gas extraction,” he said.
“Because our way of life would push all of those extraction (activities) to countries where people don’t care as much as we do about our environment.”
Leslie also said he believes in the Alberta Energy Regulator’s procedures.
“I have faith in that process because I’ve participated in it,” he said, citing as an example the Shell Caroline gas plant from the late 1980s and early 1990s that involved a regulatory process that created jobs and served a function to provide economic growth as well as development in Alberta.
“The risk and the reward have to carefully be balanced through that regulatory process.”
For her part, Funke said when asked if she supports coal industry expansion, “That’s a loaded question. There are way too many unknowns to actually answer that.”
However, like so many others, she said source water and the potential for selenium contamination is her biggest concern, especially for the James River Watershed as well as the Panther River.
“I struggle because the safety of the water of the residents of Alberta should always come first,” she said.
But in the absence of more facts, Funke said she at this point does not support — nor oppose — new or expanded coal mining projects.
Warnock was also wary about prematurely jumping to conclusions without having more information at his disposal, and urged caution against consuming information on social media.
“The correspondence that you see daily that’s on social media is very anti-coal exploration,” he said, adding many municipalities have also conducted letter-writing campaigns to the government vociferously expressing their opposition.
“I don’t know enough to jump on the bandwagon. I hate making decisions without having all of the information…I just can’t make a statement off what I hear on social media,” he said.
“Is coal mining a good thing? I think coal mining is necessary…but I think it needs to be done in the right places.”
Warnock said council is investigating the matter to obtain more facts, as are organizations like the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance and Red Deer River Municipal Users Group, and that he looks forward to reviewing more information as it becomes available before committing to taking a stance either way. He also wonders where any newly mined coal would be destined, and whether it would all be shipped internationally or if any would be used right here at home.
“I’m just not prepared to say I’m 100 per cent against what the government is doing without finding out the true facts,” he said.
Sharing the concern of water pollution, he said municipalities like Sundre have to meet updated standards to ensure treated wastewater that is released back into waterways is the best possible quality, and that industry should be held to equal or even higher standards to avoid dumping any contamination problems on downstream users.
“We need to know what their plan is. I hope our government, the provincial government, gives us the real facts — gives us the truth. Not just their version of it.”
Provincial police force
There was a variety of responses to the question of whether they support the provincial government’s plan to potentially replace the RCMP with a provincial police force.
Without skipping a beat, Warnock unapologetically said, “I do not. That one, I will make a strong comment on. Because I’m concerned that what I found out from other municipalities that have got into this, that the overriding costs of the changeover are astronomical.”
That cost, he expects, would be passed onto municipalities.
The provincial government “won’t absorb that. They will pass it onto the municipalities in extra policing costs, which they’ve already started to do. In my opinion, that is wrong,” he said.
“Whatever the issues are that are of concern, they can be worked out with the RCMP. I believe they do a good job for our province and for our municipality.”
The millions of dollars being dolled out by the provincial government to investigate replacing the RCMP with a provincial police force would be far better spent fixing the problems currently plaguing the court system, he said.
Warnock does not believe a provincial police force is in the realm of financial feasibility for Albertans.
“I don’t believe there will be any savings whatsoever in having a provincial police force,” he said.
“I don’t believe the government has a good handle on that,” he said about the cost involved.
Sure, Ontario established its own provincial police force, but that was a very long ago time, he said. The OPP was officially established in 1909.
Municipalities that in a modern context have considered this approach, such as Red Deer, walked away upon realizing the mind-boggling cost of the changeover, he said.
“You got to buy out pensions. And then you got to convince the RCMP officers that they would move over to your municipality,” he said.
“I believe that we would not get all of them — if Alberta went to a provincial police force — to move over to the province. Would it create employment? I don’t think so. It just replaces employment,” he said, suggesting negotiations and collaboration are the way forward.
Additionally, during his involvement with the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, Warnock said presentations on the matter used skewed statistics to claim a majority of Albertans want a provincial police force, when those responses largely came from the cities.
“Those people won’t understand the impact to a town like Sundre,” he said.
“Calgary and Edmonton already have their own police forces, so why are they (the government) asking the citizens of Calgary and Edmonton whether they want a provincial police force?”
Leslie said he also does not support this approach, but seemed willing to keep an open mind.
“With what I know right now, I don’t support moving to a provincial police force,” he said.
“The information that I’ve looked at, read about and tried to study, has left me with the opinion that, I believe the best policing for us as a rural municipality, is the RCMP.”
However, the mayor said he is likely a minority among council for supporting the provincial government’s updated police funding model, that has introduced an incrementally growing cost to small municipalities that never used to pay.
That’s because under the former system, he explained, small towns did not pay a dime until their populations reached 5,000, at which point they suddenly faced a huge increase.
“I support what we’re paying now, because we’re not going to get a sticker shock at 5,000 people,” he said.
And while towns that reached 5,000 in the past had to pay, municipal districts and counties with identical populations did not, he added.
“So, I think the current structure, personally, is more fair to all taxpayers.”
Although seemingly skeptical, Leslie did not immediately dismiss the idea that a provincial police force would be unaffordable for a tax base that’s already stretched thin.
“I would have to see what the recommendation and the costs associated with it might be. Right now, I don’t see a cost savings to taxpayers for a provincial police force because I haven’t seen compelling reasons” or justification to replace the RCMP, he said.
As far as Funke is concerned, it all boils down to the bottom line.
“The biggest thing with switching over is right now, we get approximately $121 million as a federal subsidy for our policing, and that would disappear,” she said.
During a police summit that she had attended, the government claimed that cost would not be downloaded onto municipalities.
“But that being said, with the new policing model that they have put out and has begun this year, small municipalities and counties that didn’t previously pay into the policing, are paying,” she said, adding Sundre’s on the hook for about $60,000 this year, increasing up to “$160,000 and some change” over the coming years.
“So, currently, I am of the opinion that it’s already being downloaded onto us, and our community can’t take any more,” she said.
“Unless they have a plan that covers costs, I don’t support the change over. I would support a better relationship with the RCMP.”
Provincial sales tax
Recognizing that only so much funding can be cut from public services and programs before the need to address faltering revenues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, low oil prices as well as some oil and gas companies that aren’t paying taxes, all three seemed reluctantly resigned to the reality that Alberta might have to be the last province in the country to introduce a sales tax.
From a personal perspective, Leslie said, “Both the provincial and federal governments are so broke they can’t pay attention. That money has to come from somewhere to pay the debt servicing costs.”
So while not particularly enthusiastic about the notion, the mayor said he — in the face of not just inflation but a growing population that presents an increased demand on for example health care and education — “would support a provincial sales tax to address those costs that continue to escalate.”
A sales tax by design is based on consumer spending habits and so people have a choice with some products, he said.
Opposed to any changes to personal income taxes, calling a flat tax “regressive,” Leslie said, “I would rather see us, as a provincial jurisdiction, move to a provincial sales tax, because I see it as more fair.”
Funke expressed no interest in paying any more taxes.
“That being said, provincial sales tax is user based. What you buy, is what you pay. It would increase the revenues to the province. But, in a lack of better words, we tax the crap out of people already,” she said.
Alberta might be among the lowest taxed jurisdictions in the country, but she wondered at what point the government should stop taxing, and when efforts to be more fiscally responsible with available funds are ramped up.
Warnock said the money must come from somewhere.
“I would sooner it come from sales tax than having to put it on the backs of the municipalities. Because then it’s a user-pay system, rather than the municipalities covering the cost,” he said.
The federal government does it to the provincial government, which also in turn does it to municipalities, he said.
“If we don’t cover the cost of the government, they’re (the provincial government) just going to keep pushing it down to municipalities — whether it’s rural or urban, we’re going to pay the bill.”
There’s the old, overused saying that only one taxpayer exists, but it’s often municipalities that get brushed off as the bad guys for higher taxes that are often the result of downloaded costs, he said.
Of course no government wanted to be in power during a massive pandemic, he added.
The Alberta government has done some things right, in terms of for example partial closures, which have received some pushback, “but the economic impact has been brutal. We don’t even know the numbers yet.”