March 25, 2020
Council’s March 25 meeting took place mainly via live-streaming technology. Reeve Murray Kerik and councillor Brian Rosche were in the council chambers. CAO Allan Winarski and recording secretary Lana Spencer were participating via their devices from their offices. Other councillors were in touch (video and audio) from home or – in one case – from the M.D. office in Flatbush. The Leader was dialed in as well, from the newspaper office.
There were a few small glitches, but on the whole it worked well enough.
The M.D. finds itself in a bit of a pickle with regard to contamination in a gravel pit. The item was due to be discussed in camera at the end of the March 25 agenda, but that was changed at it was discussed in open session at the top. The situation, council heard, is one of “heavy hydrocarbon” contamination of soil. It had been tested a couple of years ago and was okay. A more recent test gave a different result and the M.D. reported it to Alberta Environment. The M.D. asked for a clean-up proposal from company that specializes in that sort of thing and the quote came in at $243,000. This news provoked a couple of expressions of dismay, the mildest of which was, “Unreal!”
Of course the money is not in this year’s budget.
What those contaminating hydrocarbons are doing in the M.D. pit is a question that was not answered at the meeting. CAO Allan Winarski shed a bit of light on it when he said, “It was taken from Chevron so it could be used in paving or something.”
The material, whatever it is, has apparently been sitting in the pit since 2000.
“They’re trying to work with us,” said Winarski, attempting to ease fears. “We can look at options.”
Things are getting more constricted, Winarski told council. The M.D.’s role at the moment was to keep essential services functioning, while attempting to reduce the risk of virus transmission for the public and M.D. staff. By and large that is (or was as of March 25) happening. Some employees were working from home. Others have jobs that are mostly free of close contact with other people.
“We’re making sure each day there’s something new on the web page,” Winarski said.
Councillor Darcie Acton asked if the link to the Alberta Health Services COVID information site could be made more prominent on the M.D. website.
Councillors emailed their choices for a public member on the Lesser Slave Lake Regional Housing Authority. The result was Brent Mackay being appointed. He won out over two other applicants.
Council was also hoping to appoint somebody to the Agricultural Pest Act Appeal Committee, but there were no applicants for the member at large position.
Shuttle bus money
Councillor Brad Pearson had this item put on the agenda. His question was about the transfer of disaster recovery money from the M.D. to the shuttle bus program. This had been approved by M.D. council “a while back,” he said, but according to the housing authority (which operates the shuttle) the money was not received.
Winarski, who is looking after the M.D. finances on an interim basis, assured Pearson the payment would be made.
“It will be finalized,” he said. “I’m on it.”
This was councillor Acton’s item. Following up on a recent meeting of the disaster services committee, she wanted to know if the pertinent bylaws are in place, and if so, can we see them?
And if the answer is ‘yes’ to both those questions (it is), is the current bylaw “adequate for the current situation?”
“It’s a work in progress,” said Winarski. “But you are covered.”
Alternatives to dropping off a cheque
Councillor Sandra Melzer asked on behalf of some of her constituents if there is a way they can pay their bills to the M.D. without having to visit the office. Certainly there is, said Winarski. Via online banking.
“We’re set up just the same as the rest of the world,” he said. “I think that’s how most of us pay our bills.”
“Calcium too?” asked Melzer.
For more information on bill-paying options, give the M.D. a call.
Council had budgeted for a new grader in 2020. Two quotes came in – one from Finning and one from Brandt. The recommendation was to go with the Brandt quote, as being the lowest. Another plus for that company is it has a mechanic based in Slave Lake.
Councillor Brad Pearson had a lot of questions about why the M.D. budgets for full price when it knows it will get a certain amount from trading in the older unit. Winarski’s explanation of how the system works was not easy to follow, but it eventually satisfied Pearson.
The new John Deere grader will cost the M.D. $325,000.
Councillor Melzer asked if maybe the M.D. should think of putting off the purchase for a while, given the current state of uncertainty.
“No,” said reeve Kerik. “We’ll get ourselves in a corner.”
Council did put off the budgeted purchase of four pickup trucks for a few months.
“We’re going to wait and watch how the world unfolds,” said Winarski. “Maybe we keep the money in the bank for now.”
The M.D. had received bids from three dealerships – two from Slave Lake and one from elsewhere.
Council went ahead and approved the low bid on a new tandem truck for the M.D.’s fleet. That was $167,872 from Diamond International. The truck it replaces will be sold by auction. Again, councillor Pearson expressed discomfort with the M.D. having budgeted more than what it ends up spending.
“There’s a challenge we have to make things work,” said Winarski. “Uncertainty – you may not get the trade (in price) you want.”
Gravel pup trailer
Continuing with the budgeted equipment purchases, council approved the lone bid on a gravel pup trailer for $43,368.
“Just about dead on for our budget,” said reeve Kerik.
The old trailer will be auctioned off.
Hoe operations damaging pavement
Councillor Pearson had a bone to pick with the way M.D. equipment is being used. He said the stabilizer bars on a rubber-tired hoe are damaging the pavement where it has been working on clearing culverts.
“It’s starting to leave holes in the pavement.”
Pearson asked if rubber pads can be installed so as to limit the damage, “because it’s knocking the hell out of the pavement.”
Operations foreman Marvin Schneider said rubber pads don’t have to be installed because they already are.
“It’s just not being done,” he said.
Pearson asked if it could be passed on to the operators.
Ag Service Board
Not many boards have been meeting lately, but the M.D.’s Agricultural Service Board did. Councillor Esau said a delegate from the department of Ag. and Forestry attended with an update.
“Things are not like usual,” Esau said. “Their department is on the cutting block. To get help out of them in the future looks skimpy and that’s a sad thing.”
On another note, councillor Melzer said ads are out for summer students to work in ag programs.
Melzer also said farmers markets are going ahead, with two of them being in Flatbush. But that was quickly quashed by the news that there will be no farmers markets for six months.
Meeting was by conference call, said councillor Pearson. Payments on loans have been deferred. Employees are working from home.
“It was a pretty successful year,” he said. “They exceeded their targets.”
Winarski: “They’re going to get really busy soon, because sub-prime interest programs are coming your way. You’re going to get money to support business.”
Councillor Esau said he didn’t like the idea of putting people further in debt who are already in debt. It “isn’t an answer to any kind of problem in my mind,” he said.
“There are also wage subsidies available,” said councillor Acton. “Those are not loans.”
Departing even further from the topic (Community Futures), councillor Pearson said: “Deferred taxation is no answer to people not working.”
Kerik: “I guess we kicked that dog around enough. But there’s nothing we can do with it.”
Regional housing authority
Pearson said this group’s meeting was also by conference call. The big news is the M.D. of Opportunity has stepped back from its idea of reducing its contribution to the RHA. Since it opened a seniors’ residence in Wabasca, it no longer wants to contribute as much to the one based in Slave Lake. This would have been a blow to the RHA’s ability to pay off the mortgage for Vanderwell Heritage Place.
“Opportunity will continue to honour that obligation,” said Pearson. “So things look okay in that way.”
“Basically everybody is in lockdown,” reported councillor Melzer.
In other news Meals on Wheels has been discontinued in Westlock. Westlock FCSS and Homeland Housing are trying to organize a replacement.
The Town of Westlock is concerned about lack of compliance with the COVID rules, Melzer said. On the other hand, no cases have been reported in that community, she said. (But one was announced that same day.)
A law firm has been consulted on legal ramifications related to the virus pandemic. There seems to be a conflict between the need to reduce infection risk and the requirement to make meetings open to the public. No problem if nobody shows up at the council meetings; but if they do, in any kind of numbers….
The department doesn’t consider live-streaming meetings as being a valid way of keeping the public informed. But “social distancing takes precedence,” said Winarski.
Winarski went on to explain different scenarios for M.D. employees. One is regular work. Another is to work from home. Another is at home and not working. The last category is for actual COVID victims, who will be able to go on short-term disability.
Work does continue, Winarski said. The year-end report is lagging, but will be done, as will other necessary stuff.
“People are not dogging it on the taxpayer dime,” he said.
Reeve Kerik said a conference call with Alberta Municipal Affairs provided some dismal figures. The Alberta economy is expected to contract by 30 per cent. Oil is expected to stay under $10 a barrel for “an extended period of time.”
Quarantine centres are being contemplated.
Councillor Acton brought up the topic of vacancies at the M.D. Recruitment is tough enough under normal circumstances and there are some big gaps.
“Uncharted territory,” Winarski said, adding that “work is getting done.”
The finance department “is a major concern,” he said.
Winarski himself is filling in as director of finance until a new director can be recruited and one other position is vacant. There’s still no director of the transportation/utilities department.
“We’ve got a guy we want to go to the next level with,” said Winarski. “But he’s in quarantine!”
On top of all that, Winarski himself is expected to resign in the fall. But he told council he didn’t want them worrying about it.
“I’m not going to leave you with a sinking ship,” he said.
Councillor Acton said at the March 12 meeting of this group, the conversation was mostly about the pandemic. There were “serious concerns,” she said, about medical staff being able to cope.
Asked what the M.D. can do to help, the message was “to amplify the AHS (Alberta Health Services) message. Follow protocols.”
Winarski said those messages are being prominently displayed on the M.D. website.
“We’ll use every opportunity we can to keep people updated,” he said.
Councillor Esau spoke about a friend, whose nephew – a dentist – caught the COVID bug and was dead three days later, at the age of 56.
“So it’s no joke.”
On the new meeting method
The final discussion of the day was about the new meeting format. There had been some nervousness and perhaps skepticism to start off with, but the reviews were good.
“I’m pretty impressed with how it goes,” said Pearson.
“I was about as nervous as I’ve ever been,” said Esau, and went on to thank the people who helped set up the video tele-conference. (Lana, Trisha, etc.)
“I’m glad I participated,” he said.