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City poised to corner utilities market

First reading of public utilities bylaw passed unanimously by council
stock-St. Albert Place DR020
St. Albert city council unanimously passed first reading of a municipal public utilities bylaw Monday afternoon that would be “particularly useful” to creating a public utility corporation. FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

The City of St. Albert is making moves that would allow it to monopolize its utilities and open up more revenue streams.

City council unanimously passed first reading of a municipal public utilities bylaw Monday afternoon, which would prohibit anyone else from offering utility services similar or identical to services the city provides.

The move is allowed under the Municipal Government Act, which grants municipalities the right to make utility services exclusively theirs.

The bylaw would be “particularly useful” to creating a public utility corporation, as Mayor Cathy Heron pitched early last year, but would be a good idea with or without it, according to city administration.

Currently administration is drafting a business case for the utility corporation, which is set to come before council this fall.

If the utilities bylaw passes second and third readings, the city would hold sole rights to provide utility services in the city, unless it gives written permission stating otherwise.

Administration said this is a really important “foundational piece” for achieving overall larger efforts to continue maintaining high levels of service while keeping taxes as low as possible. It would give the city the leverage it needs to negotiate commercial arrangements with the public and private sector.

“We can either contract with somebody in a joint venture, or we could say, 'No, we don’t really want to do that,” St. Albert chief administrative officer Kevin Scoble said.

“This gives you more options and opportunities to capture revenue that is perfectly outlined and clearly aligned within the Municipal Government Act.”

Mayor Cathy Heron said council has not previously looked at creating a public utilities bylaw, but now is the right time to do so.

“We haven’t really looked at it before, because we weren’t considering providing anything other than the traditional utilities, but now that we are, it is probably just the right time and it will be a foundation piece in the corporate utilities – although we can do this with or without the corporation,” she said.

The bylaw will be referred to council's governance, priorities and finance committee meeting Aug. 12 for discussion before second and third readings are scheduled.

The idea to start a municipal utility corporation came forward last year, and in April of this year council green-lighted development of a business case for the corporation, which would be a for-profit business of which the city would be the only shareholder, similar to how Edmonton is the sole shareholder for Epcor. Operations would be handled by an independent board of directors appointed by council.

The business case is due to come back this fall.

In 2018, councillors heard a municipal utility corporation would provide the city with another source of revenue. It would be up to council how to allocate that revenue.

Hannah Lawson

About the Author: Hannah Lawson

Hannah Lawson joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2019 after working as editor of the Athabasca Advocate. She writes about city hall.
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