BARRHEAD- Don Smith has represented residents as a Town of Barrhead councillor for 20 years. And he hopes voters will allow him to continue to do so for at least four more years.
Last week, Smith announced his intentions to run for his seventh consecutive term.
A native of Wainwright, he came to Barrhead in 1989 with his wife Ann from Valleyview, where he was working at the local Co-op, to take a position as meat manager with Pembina West Co-op's food store.
The couple has been married for 41 years and they have four children and 11 grandchildren, all of whom live in Barrhead.
"It is a testament to what a wonderful community Barrhead is," he said, adding most young people who live in small towns can't wait to leave.
As it was for Smith and Ann, who in their younger years bounced around Alberta living in multiple communities, including Brooks, Drumheller, Vermillion, before finally deciding to call Barrhead their home.
Smith said there was no particular issue that drove him to seek municipal office in 2001.
"At the time, I was a volunteer firefighter and I was just looking for a different way I could give back to my community," he said, noting he joined the Town of Barrhead fire department shortly after arriving in the community. "I had an interest in municipal politics, so I decided to through my hat into the ring."
One of the issues Smith said he felt strongly about at the time was the need to amalgamate the town and county fire departments.
"It was one of the things I ran on," he said. "Having two departments in a community of our size struggling to pay for equipment, other resources, finding and competing for volunteers, it just wasn't viable."
Smith said if the municipalities had not decided to amalgamate the fire departments, they might have been forced to look at hiring full-time, professional firefighters.
"No rural municipality can afford to do that," he said.
Smith said over his time as a councillor he has been fortunate to see steady progress and growth in the community.
"A lot of what council does is maintaining the community. A lot of people want or expect the community to move forward and leaps and bounds," he said, adding that is not usually how municipalities grow. "We have had stable growth, though not necessarily in large population increases. We have had steady improvements. Whether it’s redoing curbs, sidewalks, gutters, paving projects, a new public works shop along with improvements in public sanitation, including a new automated garbage truck. I truly believe we are moving forward."
However, in the coming years, he said, it will be more difficult for municipalities, especially in rural areas with limited tax bases, to continue to make the strides given the financial realities.
Smith said a large portion of municipalities’ funding, especially for large projects such as road improvements and paving projects, come from federal and provincial grants. This is in addition to increased expectations, especially from the province, that municipalities need to shoulder more of the cost of the services they provide.
He pointed to the province slashing the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) grant. Starting in 2022, the United Conservative Party (UCP) government will cut MSI funding by 25 per cent over two years as it phases out the program and replaces it with a new type of infrastructure funding.
"For many years, we have been doing a major paving project every two years," Smith said. "If grant funding continues to dwindle, that might become every four years. That is the challenge and decision faces. Do you raise or not raise taxes cut services? It is a balance. You have to spend within your means. So the debate becomes what is important for the community and residents moving forward."
Given the challenges the municipality and the number of terms Smith has served as councillor, we asked if he ever contemplated retiring from council or perhaps running for the mayor's chair.
His answer to both questions was no.
Smith said he likes the process of municipal government, going to council and committee meetings and debating the issues.
"I think it is important to have someone that has some history on council and knows what the visions of past councils were. It is like having a mentorship program for new councillors
As for the mayor’s chair, he said he as thought about it.
"[The job] entails more than I am willing or able to give it … and I don't think it's the right fit for me. I think that I might be able to voice an opinion a little bit stronger as a councillor.”
As for what he would like to see going into the next term Smith said he will be very excited to see the all-wheel park completed, adding he has been a proponent of the facility since his second term.
"I know some people might say it is a lot of money, $800,000, that would be better spent elsewhere, but I disagree. These things are important for Barrhead and its youth. The swimming pool, the Agrena, the curling rink and the all-wheel park are about paying it forward and as a resident, are something I am willing to pay for because they help a community thrive or grow," he said.
Smith also said it is important that council continue to work to develop the Schneider Land, a 14-acre parcel, on the west side of town, just north of the apartment buildings along 53rd Street and south of the Shepherd’s Care facility. In October 2020, another developer purchased a three-acre parcel of the lands. The sale just recently was finalized.
"We need to do the work, put in services, complete an area structure plan and do another area structure plan. It is going to take some time, effort and money, but if we do it, in the next four years we could see businesses move into that area," he said.