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Councillors await public comment on utility corp

Plan goes to a public hearing Monday at 5 p.m.
St. Albert Place

St. Albert Coun. Ken MacKay says a public hearing Monday for a proposed city-owned utility corporation will be an important influence on which way he casts his vote.

“I'm really hoping that the public hearing will have a really good cross section, not just people who are, you know, philosophically opposed to it, but actually, some people will come in and give some good, solid background,” MacKay said.

MacKay said he is still wondering what the next steps are if this plan passes.

“I don't see any real implementation plan, and maybe it's too early for that, but I don't see next steps yet,” MacKay said.

MacKay said he isn’t sure creating a utility corporation is going to be the solution to the city’s problems.

“I just keep coming back with, what is the problem we're trying to solve or address? And if it's revenue and if it's RMR (repair, maintain, replace), is this the best way to do it? Am I prepared to give up control of our utilities and step back into a governance role and really not being able to have any real true influence on what type of service delivery?” MacKay said.

MacKay said he has a lot of questions he needs answered on the issue and said he recognizes he is not spending his own money but the money of the residents of St. Albert.

“We really need to make sure we get this right, because ultimately this all falls back on the city and I’m not 100 per cent convinced ... are we going to be able to provide a better service to the residents of St. Albert?”

Mayor Cathy Heron said Friday the process to gather input for the development of a utility corporation involves research with experts and public consultation.

“I have spoken to both the former mayor and the current mayor of Chestermere and the consultant that did their latest report, which I read, the report that KPMG did for Chestermere. One of their recommendations for sustainability of their utility corp was to do exactly what St. Albert is doing and offer new lines of businesses," she said. Chestermere's utility corporation failed and was absorbed back into the city earlier this year in the wake of ballooning utility rates.

Heron said she has also talked to Grande Prairie's mayor and heard from the former CEO for Aquatera, a regional partnership between the city and county of Grande Prairie as well as Sexsmith.

She noted part of the research process into the utility corporation is going to the public to "(gather) their opinions and thoughts and expertise."

Coun. Sheena Hughes has many outstanding questions about the plan. After looking at the business case, she said isn’t sure where many of the numbers are coming from. She pointed to salary costs of $30,000 for a waste-to-energy facility, which she said should run 24/7; and two operators, each at $80,000 per year, for a wastewater treatment facility that would also be open 24/7.

Hughes said she is concerned overall with the project's business plan because the city is selling a service rather than a commodity, and doesn’t have an established market outside of the city. The councillor said even if they are able to secure markets outside of the city, it will be difficult for a city-provided service to compete with the private sector cost-wise.

“You ... have to be able to provide services for less, which is very challenging in a government environment where you have unions, you have benefits, you have all these fixed, more expensive costs, and you can get in the private sector,” Hughes said.

When contacted Wednesday for an interview, chief administrative officer Kevin Scoble's office said Scoble would not be available for an interview. Coun. Natalie Joly, Coun. Wes Brodhead, Coun. Jacquie Hansen and Coun. Ray Watkins did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

An agenda for Monday's council meeting, posted to the city's website late Friday afternoon, includes a recommendation from administration to authorize the city to establish and control a corporation. There is also a recommendation from administration for Scoble to be authorized to take all administrative and legal steps for the corporation's establishment.

The agenda can be found on the city's website under "Agendas, Minutes & Videos".

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta.
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