The Rural Municipality of North Battleford says it cannot justify the new costs the city is presenting for a fire services agreement between the two jurisdictions.
A five-year agreement to supply the R.M. with fire services from the City of North Battleford fire department ended on Dec. 31. Late Tuesday, a press release from the city said negotiations between both governments on a new agreement had reached an impasse.
This came as a shock to the R.M., who, according to Administer Debbie Arsenault, knew an agreement had yet to be reached and both sides were not on the same page, but was under the impression talks would be ongoing until one could be ratified and hadn't heard from the city since New Year's Eve.
North Battleford has offered to provide service until the end of next month on an on-call basis to allow additional time for discussions or for the rural government to find new firefighting arrangements should a deal not be reached.
According to a press release from the rural government Thursday, the city is requesting an increase in funding to $220,000 per year for five years, with the potential for increases throughout.
The previous agreement saw the R.M. pay a total of $775,000, though the total costs for actual services tallied just around $200,000, calculated from monthly reports outlining what the department responded to. The surplus is not returned to the rural municipality.
The R.M. said it cannot justify the increase as they believe the previous agreement “more than compensated the City for the costs incurred providing emergency services.”
“We appreciate the fact that we have that fire department, that they are on call, that they are trained, and we don’t have to worry about establishing a volunteer fire department,” Arsenault said. “We want to stay with the fire department, that is what [council] prefers, but we just cannot justify [the cost increase] to our ratepayers.”
With a budget of just $2 million annually, the R.M. would be forced to levy a large tax increase to compensate for the new costs.
The rural government is pitching a per capita funding model. As they represent about five per cent of the population, they want to pay that amount of the fire departments budget, which equates to just north of $130,000 a year. The previous agreement saw them pay 7.4 per cent of the budget, a number Arsenault had no explanation for why it was settled on or what it represents.
The R.M. continues to meet with other municipalities to find a backstop should talks fail or their six-month extension request for services be denied.
“First and foremost, council’s concern is the well being of the ratepayers,” Arsenault said. “The thing is, we have a well-established fire department within reach now. To start developing our own [doesn’t make sense]…. We can only see this as a win-win. It is revenue for the city … and we are covered for emergency services.”
Mayor Ryan Bater likewise views the fire services agreement as a win-win scenario and hopes an agreement can be penned.
He said the increase is due to inflationary costs. The previous agreement did not maintain a percentage or have any inflation increase calculated into the price, which resulted in a static charge to the R.M. each year. The city wants to maintain the 7.4 per cent formula.
“If we had had inflationary increases within the previous agreement this wouldn’t have been seen as such a big increase because it would have been more incremental increases over time,” Bater said.
In 2013, Bater said the city hired additional firefighters to accommodate the agreement. The annual cost of running the fire department that year was $2.07 million and is projected to cost $2.75 million in 2019.
“Fire departments have professional staff within them. You have a lot of capital equipment within them so there are inflationary costs related to operating them,” Bater said.
Though no agreement is currently in place, Bater said given the number of people and business located in the R.M., they felt they had a responsibility to make them aware the agreement had lapsed and offer service for the interim.
“We are looking forward to meeting with the R.M. and hope we can have a good discussion and come up with an agreement,” Bater added.
On Twitter: @JournoMarr
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