The past year certainly presented a number of challenges to ‘business as usual’ at Stettler County, but Reeve Larry Clarke said there were some positives as he outlined his vision for what is hopefully a brighter 2021.
As to the pandemic, Clarke said County residents have been diligent in following the safety rules.
“The majority of the people stepped right up to do what was asked,” he said. “With the Emergency Response Centre, we saw a great working relationship between both County and Town employees as well.
“COVID did interrupt a lot, but I guess on the other hand it also created opportunities where we did achieve things that we didn’t have on the list,” he said. “We have 73 bridges in our County, and they were all built in the 50s-60s era,” he said, adding that they are also all reaching the end of their usefulness.
Through some stimulus funding handed down last year, the County was able to complete six bridge-sized culvert replacement projects.
“We did this with a combination of onsite staff and we also hired multiple contractors to work on it. And it all worked very well with very successful results so that was good,” he said.
“We’ve also been meeting with the provincial government and transportation minister every opportunity that we have had, trying to get a five-mile portion of Hwy. 55 resurfaced or paved,” he said. “It’s always been a flat ‘no’.
“We’ve had issues where we have been very worried about school buses on that section – it’s the longest secondary road in Alberta. But through the lobbying and with this stimulus funding, we did get that piece done,” he said.
“(The pandemic) also allowed staff to focus on certain projects with more time,” he said, adding that the Asset Management Plan was wrapped up as well over the past year.
Ultimately, that plan shows that the County indeed does require bolstered capital investment for some of the equipment that is aging out.
“Another thing in 2020 is that we had a changing revenue stream. Our staff responded so well to trying to balance out what we have for revenues versus what we had for projects, expenses and for capital purchases,” he said. “It was an ever-changing vision throughout the whole year.
“Typically, you know what your revenue is and unless you have an unplanned situation happen that creates an expense that you didn’t plan for, things match fairly well,” he explained of keeping things in financial balance.
“But this year wasn’t that way at all.
“Still, with the stimulus funding, staff really did step up and we got as much done as we could.”
And speaking of funding, another challenge this past year was the Province’s proposed changes to how oil and gas properties would be assessed.
Significant revenue losses to the tune of millions across the County would have been the result.
Four different assessment models were put forward for consideration, but the end result would be the same – a significant drop in revenues.
Discussions were going well with former Municipal Affairs Minister Tracey Allard, until she resigned after vacationing abroad over the Christmas holidays. Going forward, one of the challenges is that the County has to rebuild a relationship with her replacement after considerable ground was already covered.
“Not that they were going to do everything that we had asked, but she certainly was listening,” Clarke explained.
“Right now, we are also sitting with around $6 million to $7 million in bad debt. And that is basically unpaid oil and gas taxes,” said Clarke. “So I’d like to see us work with the new municipal affairs minister and the Alberta government to ensure our outstanding oilfield taxes get collected,” he said. “Then it could again be a revenue stream that we could budget on.”
On a brighter note, Clarke pointed to the County’s solid relationship with the Town of Stettler and how it’s a partnership that can only enhance economic development. “So it’s about becoming more of a competitive advantage to our area – it’s not just about one municipality or the another,” he said.
Meanwhile, Clarke is optimistic about 2021 – and much of that optimism stems from his confidence in the people of the region.
“Going forward, as the vaccines are rolled out and as people continue to follow the guidelines that we have all been following – we are going to get ahead of this,” he said. “That will allow us to start having some face to face meetings with our government representatives again, and try to change some of the things that we feel, as a municipality and part of the RMA (Rural Municipalities of Alberta), need to be changed.
“We need to look at our budget, we need to look at our services. And the bottom line has to balance out at the end of it.
“We also have to secure what our revenue sources are and then look at what services we are putting out – and hopefully, we can keep everybody happy,” he said. “The key thing is I was born and raised here. I’ve lived here for my whole working career except for a couple of years. And with working with the County, you see that you can make a change to the government. It can be frustrating, but you can also make a change when it comes to dealing with the agencies in Edmonton.
“You see people that want to see rural Alberta progress. Being part of that overall goal is what keeps the juices going and what keeps a person wanting to come back everyday.”