Council passes two new emergency measures, rejects five more at special council meeting

Prince Albert city council passed two new emergency measures during a special meeting on Monday to help deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, four other measures died on the meeting floor and a fifth was cut short after too many councillors left during the meeting. Mayor Greg Dionne and Couns. Terra Lennox-Zepp, Don Cody, Blake Edwards, Dennis Nowoselsky and Ted Zurakowski were all present at the start of Monday’s meeting, which was closed to the public to help maintain proper physical isolation policies.

Council voted to allow city employees to stay home sick without a doctor’s note during the next two weeks, and passed a motion that makes it easier to declare a municipal state of emergency. However, motions aimed at suspending collections on late utility bills, holding council meetings by phone or video conference, and providing compensation to city employees forced to self-isolate all died without a seconder.

None of the five motions were on the agenda at the start of Monday’s special council meeting. Instead, Ward 2 Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp brought all of them forward during Unfinished Business.

Lennox-Zepp argued that city councils in Saskatoon and Regina were already taking similar measures, and said it was irresponsible for Prince Albert city council not to do the same.

“We as a city council had an opportunity today to take some real action, to improve efforts on public safety and health during that pandemic, and we failed in doing that today,” she said in a phone interview following Monday’s meeting. “Some motions that I made today were in line with what the City of Regina and the City of Saskatoon have done. I strongly believe that we, as a City of Prince Albert, need to be more proactive and make some changes similar to Saskatoon and Regina in order to do everything in our power as a municipality to further protect the safety and health of our people.”

Lennox-Zepp’s first motion would have required the city to temporarily stop disconnecting utilities for unpaid bills, or collecting from accounts in arrears during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her second motion called for city council to hold future meetings by electronic means until further notice.

After both motions died without a seconder, Coun. Ted Zurakowski left the council chamber, reducing the number of council members present to the bare minimum needed to hold a meeting.

Lennox-Zepp then brought forward one motion aimed at providing compensation for self-isolating employees during their isolation period, and another that would provide five-days paid leave to employees trying to make childcare arrangements. Both motions died without a seconder.

Coun. Blake Edwards left the meeting shortly before Lennox-Zepp started reading her fifth motion. At that point, Mayor Greg Dionne was forced to end the meeting because they no longer had quorum.

Phone messages left for Edwards and Zurakowski were not returned by press time.

Lennox-Zepp then tried to ask whether the City was cutting utilities for unpaid bills at this time. Dionne did not allow her to do so because her motions were not seconded.

“We want people to have water,” Lennox-Zepp said afterward. “The city utility is water, and we want people to be able to have water in order to have proper hygiene and control the spread of this pandemic within our community.”

Mayor Greg Dionne said he was sympathetic to the idea of waiving fees and bills, but added the city simply can’t afford to do so at this time. He argued those proposals would have had a better chance of passing if there was a price tag attached. Without knowing how much the plan would cost the City, Dionne said he couldn’t support it.

“I’ve been asked that a hundred times: would we defer taxes?” Dionne said in an interview afterward. “I said, ‘we can’t.’ When we send our tax notices out we collect $30 million, so if we defer from June until September that $30 million, where are we getting that money from? We still have to do our roads. We still have to treat our water (and) treat our sewer. We still operate as a city.”

“To me, when you do talk, the first thing we have to look at, with every program we do, is ‘what are the financial implications?’” he added. “When you come and make a motion without any financial information, I can’t support that.”

Dionne said the City would look at reducing or waiving taxes and utility bills in the future, but at this time they didn’t have the financial capital. He also said he expects to see tougher restrictions handed down by the provincial government to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

“Every day I will be talking to the government and my colleagues on how we can move forward, but I want to ensure the public that with everything we do, their health and safety is the number one priority,” he said.

When asked about the financial cost of her motions, Lennox-Zepp said that number was readily available and the Mayor could get it if he wanted.

“What I can say is these utility costs that are in arrears, we don’t have the money now, so it’s not a loss because we currently don’t have those funds,” she said when asked if she had the financial cost readily available. “This is something that we would then work towards settling up after the crisis has been averted. This is an action that can help to avert such a crisis.”

Lennox-Zepp added that she plans on bringing all of her motions back before council at a future meeting.