2019 a challenging year in the City of Lacombe: Mayor Creasey

City of Lacombe Mayor Grant Creasey, pictured here at City Hall, says 2019 was a year of navigating challenges, and hopes 2020 will see some payoff from that. (Ashli Barrett/Lacombe Globe) jpg, LG

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If 2018 was a year of positive steps forward, 2019 was one of navigating challenges and making tough decisions to ensure the City of Lacombe could continue to make such steps in the future.

Difficult economic times, a change in provincial government, the termination of BOLT Transit and trashing of residential recycling were just a few of the main hurdles the city dealt with this past year, and while decisions made by the city weren’t always easy, City of Lacombe Mayor Grant Creasey believes they’ll be worth it.

“It has certainly been a tumultuous time in several areas, but I think we have coped very well with the cards that have been dealt and we’ll continue to do so in a positive manner and make the best of what has been a challenging year municipally and certainly for the province as well,” he said.

Working with the province

One of the earliest challenges came in the form of a provincial election call that would see the former NDP government choose not to release a budget, and therefore leave municipalities in the dark about what they could expect for funding and school requisition.

When the UCP government was elected in February, the 2019 budget was delayed by the creation of the MacKinnon Panel tasked with reviewing the province’s finances, which would result in the austerity budget released in late October promising to get provincial spending under control.

However, measures to do so included a reduction in capital support for municipalities, primarily through a reduction in Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding. Funding is being maintained for 2019, but will be reduced by $94 million by 2021, followed by a further decrease of $142 million in 2022.

Anticipating cuts, the city factored in a 25 per cent reduction into the budget, but further changes came after the city began its own budget process, including changes to the funding model for Parent Link, and a freeze on new photo radar programs. Creasey says it caused confusion in their budgeting, and increased the workload for administration as council sought how to support groups affected by reduced funding.

While adjusting to some of the Alberta government’s changes are admittedly something he says the city didn’t want to deal with, there’s a silver lining in municipalities being able to prioritize what services and programs were most important to them.

“No one likes cutbacks, but we were certainly willing partners,” he said. “It certainly did provide for all communities to choose to be involved at a higher level in areas they felt were most significant for their own communities. I think those changes were pretty obviously required, given the current economy and the state of our finances at a provincial level.”

With more cuts and “financial pain” to come in the 2020 Alberta Budget, he says some key projects on the 10 Year Capital Plan, including a new fire hall and public works building, both in the $5 million and up range, could be delayed, or see costs spread out over a longer time period.

Economic development

While the provincial government believes its putting Alberta’s finances “back on track,” the economy’s downturn has already hit several businesses in the community hard.

The past year saw Good Neighbour Coffeehouse close their doors, and Sweet Capone’s Italian Bakery closed their cafe in the community as well in November. The Station has also closed, while the Crafty Lady is closing its storefront as it transitions to an online store, while SushiMaru Japanese Restaurant is doing the same at the end of the month, and the same fate has befallen others, as evidenced by empty storefronts in the downtown core.

“One of the unfortunate realities of the provincial situation is an economy that has been extremely hard to negotiate for many businesses across Alberta, big and small, and Lacombe is no different,” he said, slamming the federal government for its role in hamstringing opportunity. “It’s one of the factors that goes into the decisions we as council made in keeping tax adjustments an an extremely low rate – down to one per cent – which is important at a time of financial crisis, which I would suggest our province is in now.

“No one likes to hear the word recession, but I think when you look at all the statistics for employment, bankruptcy and those types of statistics, I don’t know what other word to use.”

He says he’s hopeful things will turn around for business, and in the meantime says the city is open to creative ideas and opportunities, and willing to assist local entrepreneurs through assistance with grants, helping to align them with like-minded people to spur collaboration, as well as with advertising opportunities. The city has also take measures to reduce red tape for businesses, including reducing the time frame for permits to be issued.

There are also positive developments to look forward to, including the Henner’s Pond outfall project which will facilitate continued development of the city’s north end, such as the Charis Village seniors housing project. The first phase of the project is underway, on schedule and expected to be completed by Spring 2020.

There’s also the Midway Centre development on the western edge of the city off the QEII, which underwent infrastructure and utility line installation in 2019. Buildings, according to Creasey, are expected to start going up in the spring, with a car wash, gas station, Second Cup and other businesses already confirmed for the area.

Movement on the east side development, once known as Lacombe Market Square, is also expected in the new year. The area is expected to have a major Canadian retailer build a store, and Creasey says planning documentation is in place and there are “positive indications” a build is coming, but no official announcements for the public have been made.

The provincial building, with Alberta Health Services having now vacated the building in favour of the new Lacombe Community Health Centre, may also see some form of development in the near future. Creasey says the city is currently in negotiations and working with developers in coming up with a plan for the building.

Transit termination

Among the more controversial decisions made by the City of Lacombe was a 4-3 decision to withdraw from the regional BOLT Transit system connecting Lacombe with Blackfalds and Red Deer.

“We need to recognize council is being respectful of taxpayers’ money and we’re doing the best with what we have. We took bold steps and decided to move on,” he said, adding they’re not turning their back on public transportation, but the current council felt the program was ill suited to the community, and not delivering the value citizens deserve.

Residential recycling trashed

The other controversial decision was the elimination of residential recycling pick up as of June 1, caused by a 66 per cent increase in cost per dwelling by contractor Environmental 360 Solutions and a global recycling crisis that saw recyclable materials become hard-to-sell.

While bringing back curbside pickup isn’t an option Creasey sees as viable in the near future, he is advocating for alternative solutions in the region as well as provincially.

“This is a huge issue that affects not just Lacombe but really every community in Canada. I’ve certainly taken some steps to try and work with regional partners and our provincial government to spur on some changes in that regard, but that’s a very big ship to steer and it’s taken a little longer than what even I anticipated,” he said.

The city is also set to begin a solid waste review in 2020, and while he doesn’t expect anything new on the recycling front, there may be changes and ideas to come in terms of solid waste collection and disposal.

2020

Overall, however, despite 2019’s challenges, the city’s goals for 2020 are much the same as they have been in previous years.

“I think the challenges that are always the same are exactly what we’ve been striving to do all year – to do the best we can with the resources we have at our disposal,” Creasey said. “I’m just thankful I’m leading a council  that does engage in debate, does not always agree, but comes up with solutions that do benefit our community, and I mean that sincerely.”

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