ATHABASCA — Town of Athabasca mayor Rob Balay is looking forward to the day COVID-19 is over so the focus can be on other things.
The Athabasca Advocate caught up with Balay Dec. 29 to take a brief look back and to gaze into the uncertain future the pandemic has brought to all of us with supply chain issues, increasing construction costs and more.
“The first 11 weeks for our new council have flown by extremely fast and thus far our new group has worked very well together,” he said. “We managed to meet with our regional municipal partners for our first joint council meeting in November and with a large turnover of some councils, it was an excellent way to get to know our partners that we work with so closely on so many issues.”
Some of the many things discussed were emergency services response, rural economic sustainability, Athabasca University (AU), regional broadband and collaboration on the formation of a regional subdivision appeal board.
“Another focus for us will be our health care professional attraction and retention efforts with the formation of our regional committee,” said Balay. “We have invited the M.D. of Opportunity and the Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement to join us on this regional committee in addition to our regular municipal regional partners. We are also looking for four members of the public to help serve on this committee.”
Anyone interested in being on the healthcare attraction and retention board can contact the town office but, Balay said, high on the list is of town concerns is also AU and preventing the loss of millions of dollars of economic benefits from leaving the area.
“Our early focus in 2022 will continue to revolve around our lobbying efforts with AU and the government to keep jobs in our community now and long into the future,” Balay said.
With an eye on the future the town, once again, will hire a consultant to help develop a new strategic plan to replace the one from 2018-2021 which developed several key results ranging from defining usage of the Brick School to attracting new businesses and tourism.
“Of course, the budget is always one of our biggest and most important tasks as a council. This year will be a challenging budget year for the council, even more so than in the previous four years that I served on the council,” he said. “With the increasing provincial downloading of policing costs, cuts in provincial social programs, along with significant increases in rates from both the regional water and waste commission's, and then throw the rate of inflation on top of all that, it is proving to be very challenging. We hope to present the draft budget at a community open house in late February to receive feedback from the public before finalizing it in mid-March.”
And one of the items that cost money is the new water intake which still has the inside phase to be finished.
“Our river intake project needs to be completed as soon as possible as delays due to supply chain shortages are costing us money,” said Balay.
Then there is the 60 per cent reduction in Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding from the provincial government for at least the next two years.
“I expect that we will not be doing any significant capital projects in the next couple of years,” he said. “Instead, we will bank these funds and do a couple of larger projects in years three and four of our term. That's why it is important to look at a three-year operational budget cycle and to have a 10-year capital plan in place.”
Balay said even though the town is facing a challenging budget, there must be preparation to invest in the future where it makes sense to take advantage of long-term savings.
“We need to look at ways to save energy costs at all our facilities, by making sound business case investments that potentially can save hundreds of thousands of dollars on energy costs,” he said. “An example would be a major solar project partially funded by grants, at the multiplex. Over a 25-year period we could realize a $1.6-million savings in operational costs. If we are willing to invest in common sense projects like this, it will take some of the pressure off future councils.”
He noted the Brick School committee will focus on setting out a path forward to secure matching funding for any phased restoration projects that will be considered.
“Finally, I look forward to meeting with all the service groups, volunteer groups and the Chamber of Commerce to build on improving our communications,” said Balay. “The backbone of every community lies with our small and mid-size businesses and our volunteers. As mayor I would like to work on building a stronger relationship with all of them.
On behalf of our council and staff I would like to extend all the best to everyone in the upcoming year and we look forward to serving our community.”