City can’t rely solely on reserves to build to new fire stations: mayor

Herald file photo. Firefighters extinguish a blaze on Central Avenue in this photo from April 2021.

Prince Albert City Council voted 7-2 in favour of reducing transfers to the Fire Station Reserve from $500,000 to $100,000 during Saturday’s budget meetings.

The City started the reserve to help fund the construction of new fire halls on 28th Street West and 15th Avenue East.

Coun. Tony Head brought the motion forward. He said the City is years away from construction, so it made sense to reduce transfers to fund more urgent needs.

“At this point we don’t have a plan in place. We don’t have a design in place. We have some time to add to this budget,” Head said during the meeting.

Head supported adding $100,000 to the reserve as a way to match a similar sized donation from a private citizen. He added that council has supported the fire department in other ways, like voting to fund more paid positions.

Fire Chief Kris Olsen said the City’s strategic plan called for new fire stations to be built in 2020 and 2025. He said building new fire halls has been a topic of discussion his entire career, and the City needed to properly plan for that investment.

Even with the $500,000 reserve transfer, Olsen said it would take 14 years for the City to save enough to reach their goal.

“I respect the decision from council and we will move forward, but we’re talking a $20 million investment in those two stations in today’s dollars. Not 20 years from now. Not 30 years from now,” Olsen told council.

Mayor Greg Dionne voted in favour of Head’s motion. He said it’s unrealistic to expect the City to save $20 million. Instead, he said they’ll have to borrow the money. The $100,000 transfer, Dionne said, will allow administration to continue with the planning.

“Whether we have $600,000 in that account or $1 million, when it comes to build those stations, we’re going to have to borrow,” Dionne said during the meeting. “It will take 40 years to build that reserve. That’s off the table. That’s not a discussion.

“I looked at building a new fire hall. I was looking at the financing and how much we have to borrow. There’s just no way we’d ever build a project by putting enough money in the reserve to build it.”

Dionne said he understood Olsen’s rationale, but the 2024 budget year was too tough to put money into a long-term reserve.

“I don’t want to put money away into a reserve that we’re not going to use for maybe five years when in five year’s we can borrow it,” Dionne said. “Granted, the rates may be lower. They may be higher, but I never did look at the reserve as a way to pay off a debt. It’s to start planning. It’s to start moving things forward, and I do believe with $200,000 you can do that.”

Four separate reports, the most recent of which was written in 2008, stated Prince Albert needed three fire stations to meet the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710 –four-minute response time.

According to a 2009, report, Prince Albert’s fire department responded to calls within four minutes 43 per cent of the time. With two new stations, the fire department should hit the four-minute standard 95.5 per cent of the time, according to a Geographic Information System analysis. The four-minute standard only includes travel time. It does not include time used processing a call for service, or turning out.