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Sundre council incentivizes broadband investment

$1 million conditionally approved to pursue project
SUN town office
Council conditionally approved allocating $1 million to pursue the potential to deploy broadband high-speed internet infrastructure in the municipality earlier this month. File photo/MVP Staff

SUNDRE - Council has conditionally approved allocating $1 million to pursue the potential to deploy broadband high-speed internet infrastructure in the municipality.

But not one taxpayer penny will be spent until the terms of a public-private partnership can be agreed to.

The agreement would outline, among other conditions, how much the municipality would receive as a return on its investment.

Leading up to council’s recent decision, Linda Nelson, chief administrative officer, presented some background during the March 9 meeting.

“There’s been much discussion on the deployment of fibre optics in the community of Sundre,” said Nelson, adding the municipality’s economic development officer has for many years been working on the project.

“We’ve got to the point where we don’t have a solid plan in place, but very close to a solid plan,” she said, adding council had sought a motion to ensure the municipality has “capital funding set aside for broadband, should that project come to fruition.”

There are a couple of limitations under the Municipal Government Act that administrative staff have been working out, she said.

“Our director of corporate services and I got together and we came up with a benign motion that I believe will satisfy council’s requirements on this.”

The recommended motion was for council to move to further support the deployment of broadband fibre optics within the town by ensuring the amount of $1 million is retained within the existing restricted surplus accounts until Dec. 31, 2021.

Furthermore, that the funds may be utilized to assist a company wishing to deploy fibre optics, subject to negotiation of a suitable agreement that complies with all regulations under the Municipal Government Act, is satisfactory to the Town of Sundre, and approved by a resolution of council.

“What we are trying to do is protect the municipality to the extent that we can with this motion,” said Nelson.

Coun. Todd Dalke moved the recommended action.

Mayor Terry Leslie said the motion included multiple aspects, and asked administration to break it down for clarity.

The first part of the motion, explained Nelson, is to ensure the municipality has $1 million set aside under its existing restricted surplus account.  

“That is something we will have further discussion on at the spring workshop. We already have funds set aside in our restricted surplus that have the ability to be moved around,” she said.

Additionally, the motion states the funds could be utilized to assist a company, she said, with an emphasis on the word “could.”  

“And then of course, we wouldn’t even consider utilizing those funds without a suitable agreement that would comply 100 per cent with the Municipal Government Act,” she said, reiterating that any such agreement would also have to be satisfactory to the Town of Sundre and approved by council resolution.

“This would not even come into play until we find out what’s happening with that CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) grant, and if one of the companies that have been communicating with the town actually receives the grant,” she said.

“So, there’s a lot of ‘ifs,' but I think this is the most positive step forward we’ve had for a long time.”

Coun. Richard Warnock wondered whether the term outlined in the motion -- Dec. 31, 2021 -- provided an adequate duration.

“Is that term long enough?” he asked.

“I would suggest that we leave it at that term. We have another spring workshop after this one if we wanted to extend it,” replied Nelson.

Responding to a question from Coun. Paul Isaac about the way the motion was structured, Nelson said, “There are specific areas about the Municipal Government Act that talk about what a municipality can actually invest in and contribute to.”

The primary intent behind the motion is merely to set funds aside, she said.

“But we will not commit to spending it until we have searched out the Municipal Government Act and every single requirement, and we have an agreement,” she said.

“That’s our risk management portion.”

The agreement, she elaborated, would not be “whipped up” by the municipality, but rather by a third party who is intimately familiar with the MGA.

“We are putting costs away, within our existing restricted surplus budget. But unless we get these agreements and these clauses are all fulfilled, there is no spending.”

Speaking in favour of the motion, the mayor said one of the commitments made by council, as well as the previous council, is to endeavour to bring broadband into the community sooner rather than later.

Previous public engagement had already demonstrated support for the project even when council was considering investing $2 to $3 million to deploy municipally owned infrastructure, said Leslie.  

The new approach will encourage potentially interested service providers by making up to $1 million available to deploy broadband in partnership with the municipality, he said.

“There are conditions that we would be seeking if that was to come forward,” he said.

Without further conversation, council unanimously carried the motion. Coun. Cheri Funke was absent.

“This is a step I hope will be positive for investors coming in and wanting to put broadband in place, and I think we can all be encouraged by that,” said Leslie.