Maintaining pressure for action at the municipal level over the recent decision of the Municipal District of Taber to terminate a shared fire service with the Town of Taber, volunteer firefighters brought their concerns as a delegation to town council’s March 29 meeting.
The announcement last month 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, has caused a furor of debate and discord throughout the area between residents of both municipalities. 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.
“Just as a follow up to our presentation in M.D. council chambers on March 22, we presented our concerns and provided some recommendations to them, however we were disappointed that the council is firmly entrenched in their position of separation,” said Clarence Bos, who issued a scathing rebuke to M.D. of Taber council while speaking on behalf of a large contingent of volunteers in the gallery.
“I personally find it unacceptable that seven individuals can unilaterally decide, on behalf of 8,500 town residents, a little over 7,000 M.D. residents and thousands of people that use our roads visiting us on a weekly basis. I believe it’s unethical for these individuals to make decisions that will lower the standard of care from what we currently provide our residents and visitors. It’s incumbent upon the town to ensure that this does not happen. You have a responsibility to town residents to ensure their safety, not only in town limits, but also within bordering jurisdictions. I believe that this elected council not only has a duty to act, but also an expectation to respond in an appropriate manner.”
Bos went on to suggest the issue be brought to mediation for potential resolution.
“It is time to go from saying we are at the table, I believe, to initiating a plan of action. This may require the politicians to step out of the way and have a mediator intervene, or accept a fire commission to address regional fire response issues.”
Taking over from Bos, Captain Shawn St. Peter was critical of a perceived ‘tone’ on the part of town council in its attempts to extend an olive branch to the M.D. of Taber over the issue.
“We’ve heard the words, ‘We’re open to negotiate’, we’ve heard you want to work with the M.D. However, people are hearing those words spoken in a confrontational and adversarial tone. Everyone is aware of the vocal battles going on between the two councils. We seem to be caught up in these battles, over the 50th Street gravel issues, the compost facility, water, sewer, the walking trail and the list goes on and on. As was stated at the open house, most people are not as concerned about those issues, as they are about their safety and the ability of the fire department to provide emergency services to them.”
St. Peter was supportive of the idea of a fire commission or a regional fire service to address issues between both municipalities, but wasn’t confident M.D. council would be amenable to further discussion.
“We don’t believe the current approach with the M.D. is going to get them back to the table. Our first request is that you speak to someone from Municipal Affairs, find someone to be an arbitrator, and help negotiate a solution that will not destroy this essential service. We’ve been talking about a fire commission for a long time.”
Outlining unanswered questions about a two-service model, such as highway response among other issues, St. Peter encouraged town council to become actively engaged with the Minister of Transportation and the M.D. of Taber to work out those details.
St. Peter went on to question how the service would be able to effectively operate in future without improved equipment, especially considering the potential loss of an M.D. engine.
“You’ve publicly stated that money is not a major concern when talking about safety. This concern goes back to previous councils, but the practice seems to be continuing with this one. Several years ago, a master plan was formulated for the fire department. It identified a number of recommendations for improvement of the fire department. As far as we are aware, not much has been done by the town to address these priorities. Next year when the M.D. does take their engine, we’ll be left with one engine that is 13 years old and is coming to the end of its life cycle as a first-year engine. You’ll have an engine that is beyond its service life over 20 years old. That truck is supposed to be classified as reserve status already, for training and emergencies only.”
While appreciative of the position of council relative to the issue, St. Peter was adamant that pressure be maintained to come to a resolution.
“We appreciate that being an elected official is not always fun, especially in times like this. We know you’re basically volunteers doing this as well. Chief Munshaw has been doing a great job trying to keep everyone positive and upbeat. We need you to continue showing your support so we can find some way to resolve this issue.”
In response to the delegation, Coun. Randy Sparks suggested the volunteer firefighters have been abused as “pawns in a game.”
“I know this has been a stressful time for everyone involved, council included, and you as firefighters, because at times unfortunately, you individuals are being used as pawns in a game, and a game that isn’t a good game that needs to be played, and using you individuals who have great care and concern for the safety of those within our region, those who are travelling in our region. As a council we sure appreciate it, as you heard the other night in the open forum concerning that.”
In agreement that a regional fire service or fire commission could be an effective solution, Sparks took issue with the assertion that previous negotiations with the M.D. of Taber were conducted with any malice towards their representatives or the municipality itself.
“You talked about a supposed ‘tone’ in tripartite negotiation. There was never a ‘tone’ from the representatives from the Town of Taber that sat on that negotiating committee — ever. The Town of Taber was very gracious in those negotiations, they never once got upset with the M.D. in a verbal manner. We may not have agreed with what they had to say, but never once from the Town of Taber was there a ‘tone’ — never.”
Attacking the local media, Sparks laid the blame for any perceived “tone” in negotiations at the foot of the journalistic establishment of The Taber Times.
“The M.D. changed the game continually, they changed what they wanted. As a town, we brought it back to council, and went back to the M.D. with some more things to talk about. But I believe the town was very patient in that negotiation process. I sat on that committee, and I was at every meeting, and I know what went on there. There was never a ‘tone.’ Maybe there was a ‘tone’ reported in The Taber Times, but sitting in those meetings there never was — there was never a ‘tone’.”
Betraying a sense of effrontery over the suggestion it might be the Town of Taber’s responsibility to bring M.D. council back to the negotiating table through added concessions, Sparks placed that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of M.D. residents.
“It was interesting the other night (open forum) when people were telling the Town of Taber to ‘dangle a carrot’ in front of the M.D. of Taber. We’ve done lots of dangling. It’s up to the M.D. residents to bring their council back to the table, by talking to their councillors and saying ‘listen, this isn’t right. Let’s get back to the table, let’s figure something out’.”
Mayor Henk DeVlieger attempted to assure the delegation that town council was still working hard to come to a resolution over the issue.
“Don’t think we’re still not doing anything. Behind the scenes, I’ve talked about a mediator, if there’s a way that we can come together and talk. We’re working behind the scenes hard on this, to do this, and still in contact with Municipal Affairs in a different way, to see if there’s a means of doing this. Because we know somebody else has to be a part of it, to get the communication going. We’re really, as council, doing our utmost best.”
Weighing in on volunteer concerns over aging equipment, Coun. Rick Popadynetz suggested that when needed, council would make it happen.
“We don’t always hear what’s happening with your guy’s equipment until budget time. Council approved the training facility that we built for you guys. So we’ve put a lot of money into the fire department. If you need the equipment, we will get you the equipment. You have the assurances of council that you will get the equipment that you need.”
At the conclusion of the discussion, town council voted unanimously to accept the information provided by members of the Taber Fire Department regarding the notice of termination of the fire service contract by the Municipal District of Taber, for information purposes.