By Trevor Busch
In a last-ditch effort to prevent the dissolution of the current shared fire service with the Municipal District of Taber, the Town of Taber is organizing an open forum on the question in an attempt to mend fences with their neighbouring municipality.
Scheduled for March 23 at 7 p.m. at the Heritage Inn, the forum will be open to citizens of both municipalities. An invitation has been extended to M.D. of Taber council, as well as a request that they reconsider their decision.
“We’ve sent a letter to the M.D. to reconsider,” said Mayor Henk DeVlieger in an interview on Monday. “We don’t want to give up on this yet, because I think it’s a shame that we have to see two fire halls a couple of blocks away from each other doing the same thing. They say it’s cheaper, but I cannot see to have two fire departments is cheaper. Plus we’re now going to fight for the same volunteers. We just don’t see the logic of the whole thing. They’re saying that for them to go this route will benefit their other departments, like Hays, Enchant, Grassy Lake, and Vauxhall. Maybe there’s some truth to that, I don’t know. But in general, it’s just a big step backwards.”
The announcement last week from the M.D. of Taber that the municipality would be terminating the current fire services agreement (giving a required one year notice) with the Town of Taber and creating their own rural fire service in its place, sent shockwaves reverberating through the corridors of municipal power in the community.
“In a way we were surprised,” continued DeVlieger. “I was served with a letter last Monday at 1 p.m. I had lunch with Brian Brewin (M.D. of Taber reeve), and at the end he handed me this letter that they want to end working together. The sad part is, I was told at 1 p.m. that they were going to separate, and at 2 p.m. some M.D. councillor was already soliciting our volunteers to come to their department. That was a blow in my face.”
According to the M.D., the new rural service is set to commence March 1, 2017, and will serve divisions 1-4 of the M.D. of Taber.
In their announcement last week, the M.D. made it clear that 2015 negotiations for a new fire agreement had not been satisfactory in “establishing an agreement which is acceptable to the Municipal District of Taber for the long term.”
In a statement in the release, Reeve Brian Brewin asserted the M.D.’s preference for the terms of the previous agreement, while indicating the new agreement provided for no input by the M.D. into budgeting or policy development, nor provided the desired level of accountability.
“The motivation is that they like to be in control, and do everything themselves,” said DeVlieger. “During negotiations, looking back, the indications were there. We were negotiating for quite a while a new contract, because the old one expired. Mr. Ben Elfring (M.D. of Taber councillor) always, every meeting made a comment that ‘they should go to Plan B’. I guess you can call this ‘Plan B’. So that was an indication that they weren’t happy with the arrangement. Mr. Bob Wallace (M.D. of Taber councillor) always brought up that we over-train our volunteers to too high of a standard, and that we were inefficient. So there were some indications.”
Deteriorating relations between the two neighbouring municipalities hit a low note in 2015, with several key issues causing significant friction, including the refusal by an M.D. subcommittee of a development permit for the town’s compost pad at the waste transfer station site, as well as issues surrounding the paving of 50th Street north of 64th Avenue and the resultant weight restrictions put in place by the town.
DeVlieger admitted a degree of animosity between the two councils probably contributed to the M.D of Taber’s decision to declare a termination of their fire service arrangement with the town.
“I personally think so. I’ve been really working hard, and my comments in the last while, that we have to learn to work together — united you’re a lot more stronger — this was a big shocker. What happened here, what I call it, is one of the biggest nails in the collaboration coffin. We’ve had a relationship, as far as emergency services, since the early 1900’s, and it seems to be coming to an end.”
Competing for the same core of volunteer firefighters will not be an approach that will be likely to pay dividends for either municipality, according to DeVlieger.
“It will affect staffing. Where are all the volunteers going to come from? Our volunteers are all living in Taber, because in order to respond, you have to live within a certain distance away from the fire hall. So now we’re going to draw from the same people. Firefighters are special people. They don’t do it for the money, they do it out of dedication, and they like to be highly trained so they can serve the public even better by saving people’s lives. So I can see it becoming a little bit of an issue. We’re very concerned about our volunteers, they’re very down right now about this whole thing. They’re very precious to us.”
Questions regarding the size of the current service and a potential reduction due to a reduced coverage area, are still being assessed by the Town of Taber.
“It will affect the size somewhat, but on the other hand we still have a certain amount of calls. It’s a 24-hour, seven-day-per-week service, so you need a certain amount of volunteers in order to sustain that. Not everybody is available at all times. So you have to have a certain number of people to fulfill your seven-day-per-week, 24-hour service,” said DeVlieger, who went on to note that financial impacts on the town are also largely nebulous at the moment. “We’re at the moment looking at that, studying that financial impact, so it’s hard for me to (comment). But it will have a financial impact, no doubt about it.”
Impacts on the use and further development of the town’s new fire training centre in the industrial area are also still being assessed.
“I think it will. I don’t know how yet,” said DeVlieger. “First of all, we’re very proud that this training centre came to realization. The Taber charity auction donated most of the money for that, which is town people, but also a lot of people come to that auction from the M.D. It will affect, because Vauxhall and the M.D. are putting in their own training centre in Vauxhall. So there’s going to be two training centres.”
Numbers quoted in the M.D. of Taber’s press release suggesting the new fire service will be cost neutral to M.D. of Taber ratepayers are more fantasy that reality, claims DeVlieger.
“I think with creative book keeping you can make everything work. The figures that are in their press release are not accurate, and we’ll explain that in our next media publication. Those figures are distorted, as to all that’s included in there. Even if they can do it for $5,000 cheaper per year, would that be a reason to totally separate? I’m not saying that it is more, because we think that it (the current agreement) was a good deal for the M.D.”
In closing, DeVlieger reiterated a plea to the M.D. of Taber to respectfully reconsider their decision and work together with their fellow municipality.
“We want to see if we can make it work. We want to do our utmost best to talk to them to see if they want to reverse. We’re very sad, as a town, this is one of the saddest days we’ve seen. We just don’t understand, especially in a time that governments are encouraging us to work together and collaborate. It’s a shame.”