County residents want councillor’s resignation over amalgamation

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SANDRA M STANWAY
Brooks Bulletin

Division 4 councillor Wayne Hammergren was asked for his resignation during last Wednesday’s amalgamation meeting in Rainier.
Towards the end of the two hour meeting Marlene Hofmann of Scandia asked the crowd of about 150 if they have persuaded Hammergren to vote against amalgamation.
Hearing ‘no’ from the crowd Hofmann turned to Hammergren and asked if he’d be willing to step down.
“No,” Hammergren quickly responded. He did say that he would not be seeking re-election in 2020.
During the evening Hammergren continuously said the county is researching strengthening their working relationship with municipalities through regionalization or amalgamating but there is no decision.
“You are wanting to take it. You want the package. You’re not convinced enough in what we want to represent us,” Hofmann said.
“I think a man that has his heart behind this needs to represent us,” she said.
“We don’t want it. We’re wasting money. They only way the City of Brooks will be happy is if they’re in control and they will wrangle control one way or another. It’s what larger centres do,” said Don Jacobson, a Scandia resident and a meeting organizer.
Hammergren did say he would vote for a plebiscite to give residents a voice in the proceedings after an information package is presented to residents, however, it’s not clear the results of the vote would be binding.
The residents seemed to be OK if the county merged with a rural municipality such as the M.D. of Taber but they are concerned with a City of Brooks merger.
“You guys are looking to amalgamate with the nearest city which is totally different. Rural-urban amalgamation will not work,” Jacobson said.
It will quiet the rural voice even more than it is now.
John Brummelhuis, who is a brother to Ellen Unruh, the lone councillor to vote against regionalization/amalgamation discussions, said the biggest difference between the city and county is population.
He said if under a regional government there are five councillors each from the city and county and one from Bassano and the city wants money for a project, the lone Bassano councillor which is urban will side with the five city councillors.
Hammergren agreed if Bassano decided to vote with the city it could go that way.
“Let’s realize one thing regionalization is the way to go. We haven’t agreed there is going to be a 5-5-1. That would be something we have to know when we put a package together,” he said.
“Rural-urban amalgamations have always ended in disasters,” said Richard Hiebert of Gem.
Holding up Ottawa as an example, where 12 municipalities were merged into one by the province in 2001, Wayne Slenders said it cost $190 million. The annual operating budget for the roughly 1.25 million, is $115 million.
Slenders’ fear is a substantial increase in taxes and believes the county is being forced to solve an economic problem with a political solution.
He said it is important to save money and there needs to be ways to work it out, however, “losing the rural voice is not acceptable.”
Hammergren said population will always be a concern but not looking at it is foolish.
“We’re just putting our heads in the sand. We’ve got to have a way to address it and look at it and try to protect the rural people,” he said.
Hiebert wanted to know if there is an exit strategy so if the merger does not work one party can begin a process.
“My answer would be no. We haven’t got anything together yet,” said Hammergren.
“Maybe that is something we can try to put in.”
Hiebert said there are examples of disastrous amalgamation results from Ontario and Alberta, including the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, where rural interests have been destroyed.
Over the past few years there has been a call from some rural residents to withdraw from the process mostly because of the poor financial deal they are receiving – higher taxes with fewer dollars being returned to the rural part of the municipality.
Like many speakers before him, Hiebert said county residents must make their own decisions, not Brooks.
Pointing the finger at CAO Kevin Stephenson Hiebert asked if he’s in a conflict of interest because he is a county land developer and because, as he said he was told, if amalgamation goes through Stephenson would earn a $500,000 severance.
Stephenson likely has a package as part of his CAO’s contract which ends in 2022 but it does not have to do with the future of amalgamation.
Stephenson said his job is to provide advice while applying the Municipal Government Act and his taxes would drop in both the city and county.
“I don’t believe I’m vested one way or another,” he said.
The attacks went beyond the CAO to include staff and councillors which has resulted in Division 3 councillor Anne Marie Philipsen not attending a meeting that was called in Patricia.
That meeting will be held on Aug. 19 at 7 p.m. at the Patricia Community Hall.
“We have to wait for the research to be finished. I am not attending a meeting where staff and council are attacked,” she said.
Prior to the Division 4 meeting attendees were able to sign a petition asking the county to cease and desist any and all actions to amalgamate with neighbouring municipalities, and were presented with pre-addressed and stamped envelopes for letters to Premier Jason Kenney, Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu and Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Devin Dreeshen.
The regional working group has reported they will receive reports with scenarios showing what the tax rates may look like if the future Intermunicipal Collaboration Framework (ICF) were incorporated into the status quo and what the costs would look like under amalgamation.
The results will be presented to the public during the information sessions in November.
They were to be held in October but they were moved because the provincial budget is not expected until after the federal election.