The Town of Ponoka’s fire services transferred to Ponoka County Friday afternoon.
The switch came after Ponoka County held a special meeting Friday at 1 p.m. to discuss the proposed agreement to take over town fire services from the Ponoka Fire Department (PFD).
This meeting came on the heels of the town’s special meeting Feb. 22 where it was voted by town council to transfer the services. While the county approved the request unanimously it didn’t come without concerns.
Coun. Mark Matejka was vocal about his concern with the agreement. He took issue with the costs associated with the transfer.
The agreement sets out that the county will take in the town’s pumper truck and ladder truck with the former being purchased for $380,000 including equipment.
“It’s based on 100 calls per year, which is the information we got from the town,” explained county CAO Charlie Cutforth.
Where the county sees extra costs is in having to extend its fire hall to fit the town’s two trucks. Cutforth expects that to run about $600,000 although a cost hasn’t been confirmed.
The fire hall extension plus the purchase of the town’s pumper truck will be close to $1 million, something Matejka was not pleased to hear. “What am I going to tell residents?”
For the county’s part, Cutforth says these additional costs can be handled in the 2018 budget without having to dip into reserves.
He said the 2017 total operating fire services costs for the county with the regional system were $728,755. “The revenue received was $344,931.”
When the county paid into the towns of Rimbey and Ponoka in the past, total costs ran around $250,000, added Cutforth. Before, the towns would get revenue from Alberta Transportation calls.
Reeve Paul McLauchlin added that in speaking with other municipalities, fire department amalgamation can easily cost about $3 million.
“Now we have to have a specialized modern truck for the town?” asked Matejka, pointing out that he feels county residents would not be in favour of this deal.
Coun. Nancy Hartford disagreed offering that when the original handshake deal between the town and county councils was originally made, residents in both municipalities wanted to see this occur.
“You’ve worked with this guys before,” stated Matejka, adding that he feels it’s important to put the transfer details in writing.
Cutforth pointed out that previous issues were more to do with past elected officials and that the current fire trucks will have their equipment on them.
“It’s fully equipped as it is. Is there a concern for that? There is,” offered Cutforth, regarding the worry of equipment being removed.
“Within 30 minutes of this meeting there will be an inspection,” he added.
McLauchlin added there’s potential the transfer could happen sooner than the May 1 deadline outlined in the agreement. Indeed, about two hours later, the county became the fire services department for the town.
See more on the transfer below.
Coun. Bryce Liddle agreed that Matejka’s concerns were valid but offered that it’s time to move forward. “We can’t keep looking in the rear-view mirror.”
McLauchlin added town and county councillors were voted in to work together.
“This is a new council,” he added. “And at the same time we’ve got some obligations under collaboration.”
Another concern for Matejka was about the potential of the town leaving the agreement and then the county would be stuck with a pumper truck they don’t need.
Coun. Doug Weir, who called in by telephone, asked if there’s a way to amend the agreement that the town buys back the rescue truck if the town serves notice.
“It’ll show their good faith,” said Weir.
McLauchlin was in favour of that idea. “Just tie it to the agreement.”
“I’ll tell you who has the greatest risk. It’s the town,” McLauchlin added.
“I think the town wants to move forward and I think we should move forward,” added Hartford. “We wanted this to happen years ago.”
Council voted unanimously in favour of the agreement with the buy-back option for the pumper truck.
Transfer came shortly after county meeting
After the county decision things moved quickly in the Town of Ponoka.
The county’s meeting ended at about 2 p.m. and shortly after it was seen that CAO Albert Flootman’s vehicle was at the PFD Fire Hall along with a locksmith.
It’s unclear the reason for the quick transfer but it appears the town took the necessary steps to inform emergency dispatch in Red Deer to ensure town residents were protected.
At about 8:30 p.m. the town sent out a press release stating that effective immediately, “…it has entered into a regional fire services agreement with Ponoka County to provide fire protection services to the Town of Ponoka. The agreement, which was approved by Ponoka town council last week and by Ponoka County council early this afternoon took effect at 3 p.m. today.”
Flootman did take time to thank to the PFD members for their service, pointing out the town’s department has been in operation since 1906.
“On behalf of the town, I would like to express our deep and sincere appreciation for the dedicated service and outstanding fire protection provided by our Ponoka Fire Department members,” said Flootman in the release.