Two neighbouring communities in the Foothills are taking the next step towards amalgamation.
During the July 16 Friendship Agreement meeting, Black Diamond and Turner Valley town councils passed a motion to notify the Minister of Municipal Affairs of their intent to formally enter into amalgamation negotiations on Sept. 15.
Administration and council in both communities wouldn’t comment on the decision until a press release went out to media today.
“This is the first step in a deliberate process that will help us iron out the details of what a new single municipality will look like,” Turner Valley Mayor Barry Crane stated in the press release. “Council looks forward to a successful process in the months to come.”
Crane told the Western Wheel that administration will spend the next six to eight weeks formulating a negotiation plan and framework.
“The negotiations are just an extension of all the partnerships that we’ve already formed and expanding that into the areas with the hard conversation pieces like the financial implications, what grants are available, what does the organizational structure look like,” he said. “Those get looked into deeper during negotiations.”
Crane said the negotiation plan will also provide a rough timeline for the amalgamation process.
The process of getting the plan developed will include community consultation opportunities, and will take about a year, he said.
“Our 2017 amalgamation feasibility study (see previous article) covered a large part of community engagement,” he said. “The public consultation and all of those pieces is what will get hammered out throughout negotiations.”
Consultants with Urban Systems released a 43-page feasibility study in 2017 after the two councils agreed to explore the potential of merging in early 2016. The Towns received a $150,000 grant from the Alberta Community Partnership to hire a consultant to conduct the study.
The two towns have explored amalgamation twice before, most recently in 2007. The idea was shot down in a plebiscite by an 815-721 margin (493 Turner Valley residents voted in favour and 258 against amalgamation, while 228 Black Diamond residents supported it and 557 voted against it).
Those opposing amalgamation expressed concerns about the cost, lack of information, loss of town identities and Turner Valley’s ongoing struggles with its century-old gas history, according to previous issues of the Western Wheel.
Once the negotiation process is complete, the Towns will submit an application for amalgamation to the Minister of Municipal Affairs, the press release states.
While Crane said Turner Valley hasn’t included the negotiation process in its 2020 budget, administration will seek out grants the communities can access in the weeks leading up to Sept. 15.
The decision was not unanimous
When the motion passed on July 16, not all councillors supported the decision, according to minutes of the meeting.
Black Diamond Deputy Mayor Daryl Lalonde, Black Diamond Coun. Ted Bain and Turner Valley Coun. John Waring voted against the motion in a recorded vote.
Waring said he supports the initiative, he just wanted to see the letter go to the minister sooner.
As for Bain, he said he's not against the concept of amalgamation, but he questions if now is the time to start the formal process.
"Given the current uncertainties we are facing, this matter is something that can afford to wait," he said. "We are about to embark on a project that over half of the people who voted in the last plebiscite disagreed with. No polling has been done to determine if people changed their minds."
Bain said he questions the benefits of amalgamation, doesn't believe the time is right to move forward on it and wonders where the money will come from to pay for it, particularly during the current financial uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The federal government is projecting the highest budget deficit in Canadian history,” he said. “Before COVID, the Province set aside funding for communities transitioning. Grants that were previously available may no longer be.
"When a citizen asks me why we are willing to spend this money now rather than helping citizens and businesses who could use immediate help, what do I tell them?"
Expenses that come with the formulating a negotiation plan will include facilitator fees, legal fees, public consultation, staff time and councillor per diems, among others, said Bain.
“We intend to jointly meet once a month for the foreseeable future at roughly $1,500 a meeting that has not been budgeted for," he said. "It all adds up at a time we don't know how many of our citizens and businesses will need help.
"I am convinced that this is not something that needs to be done now, and am equally convinced that a delay until this current health and fiscal crisis is sorted out is the wise thing to do."
Lalonde was able to be reached for comment before press deadline.
Turner Valley Coun. Lana Hamilton didn’t participate in the vote as she was on holidays at the time.
Crane said a majority vote from each council was required for the recommendation to go forward.
Reaching this step in the amalgamation process is due to previous councils in Black Diamond and Turner Valley continuing to build relationships and partnerships with each other, he said. The Friendship Agreement was adopted by previous councils in 2012 as a commitment between the two towns to collaborate towards expanded shared services and improved communication.
“We’ve been honoured to be able to push forward with the best intentions of co-operation towards the final goal,” he said. “Throughout the process in the coming year, Turner Valley looks to work hand in hand with Black Diamond to answer all the tough and detailed questions that the public may have. We will do our best to that end for citizens.”
Black Diamond Mayor Ruth Goodwin stated in the press release that submitting a notice of intent to pursue the amalgamation process to the Minister of Municipal Affairs is a natural progression of the many collaborative initiatives the two Towns have undertaken, particularly during the past decade.
“We recognize that this is just the beginning of the formal process but look forward to the productive and positive steps towards formally amalgamating the two Towns,” she wrote.