Ponoka council approves holding back tax money from province

Town to stop sending education portion in hopes of getting fieldhouse project funding

The crusade by Ponoka Mayor Rick Bonnett to get a fieldhouse funded has just levelled-up a notch.

At the town council meeting Nov. 27, Bonnett ceded the chair to Coun. Teri Underhill in order to introduce a pair of motions that were fashioned, as a negotiation tool, to push the provincial government to help fund the combined Ponoka-Stettler project.

The first motion called on the province to release the federal government’s portion of the Infrastructure Canada plan funding, amounting to about $6 million, and — with Coun. Carla Prediger absent — it passed unanimously.

RELATED: Ponoka County tosses back interest in fieldhouse project

The second motion, which passed with Coun. Sandra Lyon being the lone dissenting vote, would see the town hold in trust starting Jan. 1, all of the education school tax portion of Ponoka’s property taxes until the province’s approximate $4.5 million share of the project is acquired or until the province meets its obligation to the project.

Once the province supplies funding, the town would release all of the funds held in trust and any interest accrued to the province. In 2018, Ponoka remitted nearly $2.35 million in education taxes to the province in quarterly payments.

“We have been working on this with the government for over three years and it’s now time push came to shove,” Bonnett stated in the lead up to the motions.

Plans took a turn in early September when the province changed how its share of infrastructure funding is supplied — stating its one-third would come from Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funds, which would normally be used on projects like road and utility upgrades. For 2018, Ponoka saw $1.28 million through MSI, though the agreement only extends until 2020.

READ MORE: Ponoka mayor and council takes on province for recreation funding

Since then, Bonnett has met with finance minister Joe Ceci, municipal affairs minister Shaye Anderson and infrastructure minister Sandra Jansen regarding those changes. Ministers said they would do what they could to get the project done, but Bonnett also informed the ministries of council’s intentions if the province didn’t show up at the table.

Caution issued

Prior to the votes, CAO Albert Flootman advised council that while there are no prescribed penalties in either the Municipal Government Act or the School Act for not paying the requisition, the province does have other options.

In referring to a memo he wrote to council, Flootman said the province may take any grants payable to the municipality should it default on the requisition payments for as long as it takes to credit any outstanding amounts. He also explained the province could also take action — such as conducting an inspection or inquiry into the municipality’s affairs. If those lead to a determination of irregular or improper conduct, the minister could order the removal of a council member, the CAO or dismiss the entire council.

Council reaction

Coun. Kevin Ferguson, a former teacher, is torn on the issue. However, he feels supporting Bonnett’s motions is a must after watching how the province went from “gushing” over the project a year ago to stating this fall there is no money.

“To quote one minister we met with, ‘This is exactly what we want to see.’ Fast forward and suddenly the tone had drastically changed.”

Ferguson noted all council received were gloomy faces at recent meetings from cabinet ministers and platitudes about there being no money.

“The problem though, is the provincial money is the key to unlocking the federal funds,” he added. “That looms as a double financial loss. The province has tried to save face by allowing us to use MSI funding, but this is the meanest of red herrings I have ever seen.”

“We would have to spend years of our MSI to do it, which means allowing the almost complete collapse of the town’s infrastructure. Thus in reality, we were abandoned by our provincial government and left without a choice.”

Underhill also weighed in by noting the frustration businesses in Ponoka have expressed regarding not being able to attract employees.

“The number one reason they won’t come is, in their eyes, there are not adequate recreation facilities,” she said.

While also noting the province has been told this, Underhill finds the lack of follow through by the province as reprehensible.

The current fieldhouse project has only been on the books for the past three years, but Ponoka has been looking at improving its recreational facility as far back as 2005.

It was only in 2017 that Stettler was brought on board to enhance the chances of getting funding — through municipal collaboration and cost-savings by proposing construction of the same facility simultaneously in both communities.

A spokesperson from the provincial government wasn’t immediately available for comment on Nov. 28.

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