BARRHEAD/WESTLOCK — Local municipal leaders in attendance at the Rural Municipalities of Alberta spring conference last week gave high marks to the presentation given by premier Danielle Smith, though the unknowns around the new Local Government Fiscal Framework is still cause for concern.
“Overall, it was a good speech. It sounded to me like an election kickoff speech, like a campaign speech, moreso than what the typical address from the premier is to those conferences,” said County of Barrhead reeve Doug Drozd.
“I very much liked it” said Westlock County reeve Christine Wiese, noting that what she appreciates about Smith is how it’s clear she had done a lot of research before giving her address.
During her March 22 address, Smith highlighted all of the funding initiatives and policy changes contained within Budget 2023 that are intended to benefit rural Alberta.
Smith said that through the province’s Economic Development in Rural Alberta plan, the province is striving to expand and diversify rural economies.
“We are building up the programs and infrastructure your families use every day,” she said. “We hope that more opportunities and services mean the next generation of rural Albertans are more inclined to stay where they grew up, and we hope it means more people and dollars from outside will be drawn into your communities.”
Smith said they know Alberta is heading into another cycle of volatility, and thus there is the need for a responsible fiscal plan. She then described how the province has developed a plan for debt repayment and investing in the Alberta Heritage Savings Fund.
Smith noted that if they had begun investing in the fund in a similar fashion 30 years ago, it would be more than $30 billion today and generate more than $20 million in annual revenue.
“If we can just show a little bit of restraint and grow (the fund) with our investment income, 30 years from now it might be that large," she said. “What a great legacy that would be to leave to our kids and grandkids.”
Smith’s address then touched on the Local Government Fiscal Framework, which the province is intending as a replacement for the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI).
If the accompanying legislation is passed, Smith said the framework funding will rise or fall in line with the percentage change in provincial revenues from three years before.
“Linking funding to revenues ensures that you’re true partners in Alberta’s success,” she said, adding that they’ve committed to giving top-up funding when required so no municipality will end up with a year-over-year decrease when the new framework is implemented.
Although there might be a slight increase to what the county gets, Drozd said the they are aware that the money initially available through the framework will be similar to what was available through MSI.
Overall, he said the framework is not significantly different from what MSI was before, except for the fact that it is tied to provincial revenues.
“They’re committed to growing it as long as the economy keeps growing, but if things go south again, be assured they will give us a haircut,” he said.
Drozd said that ideally, municipalities would have more stable funding and get increases that are more reflective of inflation.
Still, he regarded this as a step in the right direction, adding that here’s still some discussion to be had between the province and the two associations that represent rural and urban municipalities.
“I think the government was looking for a unified voice on this. They didn’t get it, so they have to go back and work on something a little bit different,” he said.
Wiese recalled how following the release of the budget, she participated in a conference call with Municipal Affairs minister Rebecca Schulz, who received a flood of questions about the fiscal framework.
Her response was that more answers were forthcoming, though Wiese said these unknowns make it very difficult for municipalities to develop their budgets and documents like multi-year capital plans.
Wiese said she hoped more details are finalized by June or July, but worried that if things were figured out closer to September or October, that would put a lot of stress on their administration, as well as other municipalities.
"It’s all right now a big unknown,” she said.
Ag processing and solar
Smith’s address also touched on the province’s progress on the Health Care Action Plan, noting that they were making strides in terms of speeding up Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and lowering wait times for surgeries.
She said Budget 2023 also includes more than $2 billion to expand roads, highways and bridges, as well as funding for school modernization projects like the Barrhead Composite High School.
As well, she said the budget includes $59 million over three years to train more veterinarians so that farmers and ranchers can get expert help when they need it, and an additional $390 million over four years to expand access to reliable and affordable high-speed Internet.
She also highlighted a tax credit to drive large-scale investment in the agri-foods sector, referencing the recent announcement by McCain Foods to double the size of its potato processing facility in southern Alberta.
Drozd said that was what they hoped to see with GFR Ingredients, which has “plans on the books” to expand their operation in the Kiel Industrial Park.
“That’s the reason the Kiel Industrial Park exists: if some food-processing or ag-processing industry wants a place on an industrial site in the heartland of agriculture in Alberta, well, here we are,” he said.
“It’s all ready to go with natural gas and three-phase power and fibre optics and a riad network. Come see us, we’ve got the spot for you, we’ve got the workforce for you … and now we’ve got the tax incentives too.”
During a Q&A following her presentation, Smith was asked about a lack of municipal control in approving solar power projects, which many complained are being placed on prime agricultural land.
Smith said she was supportive of solar and wind projects where they make sense, but that was not the case with solar projects on prime farmland.
She added that she does not want the province to move away from electricity generated from fossil fuels.
“We are a natural gas province and we will continue to build natural gas power plants because that is what makes sense in Alberta," Smith said.
In Westlock County, a company called Ascestes Power ULC is planning to establish a 24-megawatt solar panel project roughly two kilometres north of the Town of Westlock, which has prompted some concern from residents about the fact it is located on agricultural land.
Wiese indicated she appreciated Smith’s comments on the subject, agreeing with her point that geographic differences may not make solar power a fit for Alberta in the sense that hydroelectric power is a fit for B.C. and Quebec.
“We’re not like a Sunshine Coast kind of place,” Wiese said, adding that while county council is not opposed to solar power, they would like more information about it, particularly what happens when panels exceed their 20–25 year lifespan.
She said they are also nervous about the process followed by the Alberta Utilities Commission, who don’t necessarily take county bylaws into account.
“We would have liked to have been more involved in the beginning stages,” she said. “But when they let us … become aware of it, the ball’s already rolling down the hill and we’re trying to chase it, trying to figure out what do we do here.”