Lacombe council backs Ponoka in desire for equitable government funding

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One town’s quest to construct a new field house has ignited a desire from area municipalities to see equitable funding for all communities.

During their regular meeting Monday, Lacombe city council voted unanimously in favour of a motion for equitable treatment in accessing federal and provincial funding programs. The move was in response to a plea from Town of Ponoka Mayor Rick Bonnett, asking for a letter of support after his council chose to withhold school requisition in attempt to force the government’s hand to provide funding for a new field house.

While there wasn’t much elaboration from council Monday night, there had been plenty two weeks ago when Bonnett first approached them.

“It’s disconcerting to think that the provincial government is forcing (Ponoka) into a corner on this item,” said City of Lacombe Mayor Grant Creasey. “It’s not an acceptable way to be treated…We do expect to be treated appropriately by our provincial partners and this is an example they have fallen extremely short.”

The Town of Ponoka has been working towards building a field house, as well an aquatics facility, at their existing recreation centre since 2005. In 2008, when federal government funding was available, they were told they did not having a plan that was shovel-ready so their grant application was refused. In 2012, the town was again passed over for a multiplex and field house.

In 2014, Bonnett said they really began pushing the federal and provincial governments to develop a new program to fund wellness and recreation projects, and in June of last year, the federal and provincial governments signed an agreement that such projects would be 45 per cent federally funded and 33.3 per cent provincially funded with the rest to be made up by the municipality.

Still, however, the town was passed over for grant funding, despite the agreement, and so on November 27, Ponoka called on the province to release that federal funding agreed upon – approximately $6 million – and decided to withhold education taxes until the province met its “obligation” through the agreement.

“We don’t take it very lightly…but as we go forward, that is our true and only real way of telling the government that we want to at least hold them to account,” Bonnett told Lacombe city council. “We think smaller communities, such as Ponoka, Lacombe, Innisfail, the central Alberta and northern Alberta communities are not given a fair shake compared to the big cities.”

Case in point, the provincial government gave the City of Calgary a 20-year extension on the Rivers District Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) for the $500-million BMO Centre expansion. The CRL is a program that allows a municipality to use not just their own property tax, but education tax revenues to finance infrastructure projects. Ponoka had a similar request, but only for four years.

Rather than continued discussion, however, Ponoka was finally sent a letter by the province Jan. 10, where they were informed the provincial government would hold back all grant funding until such a time as the town withdrew their motion to withhold school requisition.

The first payment to the provincial government is due at the end of March, and should Ponoka not adhere to the province’s requests, further action may be taken.

The hope is that with further support from communities across the province that they will be able to lobby the government to address what they call inequitable funding structure.

Ponoka has now received support from at least four other municipalities, including the City of Lacombe, Town of Stettler, Stettler County, and Ponoka County.

In February, Bonnett has a northern Alberta tour planned, where he’ll ask for support from the communities of Westlock and Barrhead.