Some city councillors do not see the emergency for a new firehall in St. Albert’s northside.
During budget deliberations on Thursday, council questioned St. Albert Fire Services chief Bernd Gretzinger on the actual need for building the new $16.3-million Firehall #4, targeting 2023 for opening.
“This is a five-per-cent tax increase over three years, that’s what we’re basically looking at to build a new firehall, which under all the other pressures we have is not (a) small amount,” said Coun. Sheena Hughes.
Coun. Jacquie Hansen echoed Hughes, saying she is “having a little bit of trouble understanding the emergency” of building Firehall #4.
Currently, fire services are not reaching emergency calls within nine minutes 90 per cent of the time in over half of St. Albert neighbourhoods, which is mandated by city policy. According to background in the proposed 2020 budget, with proposed annexation of Sturgeon County land and subsequent development, those call times will stretch out even more.
However, Hughes noted some of the worst performing neighbourhoods are not even in the north. Fire station #1 is in Grandin, and out of 127 calls to the neighbourhood, fire services reached calls within nine minutes 81.9 per cent of the time.
Also in the south, Akinsdale was at 83.3 per cent, while South Riel performed the worst of any neighbourhood with 45.4 per cent.
In the north, Erin Ridge North was the only neighbourhood painted in red, meeting targets 74 per cent of the time.
When asked why neighbourhoods bumping up against firehalls were not meeting targets – including Ville Giroux – Gretzinger said fire engines could be coming from any hall in the city, depending on other emergency situations at the time.
Coun. Ray Watkins asked for Gretzinger’s thought process when he put forward the request for a new firehall, and the fire chief said adding another station “adds more manpower (and) more equipment.”
“The manpower it takes to completely deal with major situations, it’s a huge amount,” he said. “Anything I can do to mitigate the risk is what I represent, based on the research.”
St. Albert chief administrative officer Kevin Scoble said when administration prioritizes capital projects, the highest rating is given to public safety.
“The other thing, too, that is a constant in St. Albert is growth – we grow very steadily,” he said.
Some alternatives to building Firehall #4 were suggested by members of council, including delaying the project a few years, building a temporary firehall in growth areas or altering Firehall #1 designs to accommodate more equipment and personnel.
Hansen asked whether building a temporary firehall – similar to one proposed in Calgary for $2 million – has been considered.
“I’m wondering if that could be temporary solution until actual houses (are) built and property taxes are collected, or growth pays for a firehall?” she said.
Hughes asked whether administration has considered alternatively expanding services at Firehall #1, while replacement of that hall is in the works.
In June, council approved the 2020 municipal repair, maintenance and replacement (RMR) capital plan, which includes a $14.1-million rebuild of Firehall #1. It would be moved from its current location on Sir Winston Churchill Avenue to the Village Transit Station on Gate Avenue.
“We’ve got to look at the fact we’ve got a limited budget. If we’re going to do this, I’d like it to be done right as opposed to still having an issue at the end of the day, because location is certainly an issue,” Hughes said.
In an interview, Hughes said she might bring forward a motion to amend the budget to reflect an alternative to building Firehall #4, depending on a cost comparison she has asked administration to compile on expanding that hall versus a full build-out of Firehall #4.
While construction of Firehall #4 would not begin until 2021, administration is asking for the full project amount in 2020 for borrowing purposes.