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Canmore to track provincially downloaded costs on municipality

“It’d be good information to know how much of our budget is being spent on things that should be provided by the province."
Canmore Civic Centre 2
Canmore Civic Centre on Thursday (April 21). JUNGMIN HAM RMO PHOTO

CANMORE – An effort by the Town of Canmore to keep track of extra expenses incurred from the provincial government due to the downloading of services and costs is set to begin.

Town council unanimously supported the decision, which will unlikely see the province repay the Town, but could help advocacy efforts in curtailing the downloading of costs to municipal taxpayers.

“We’ve talked about downloading for years, and whether it be enforcement around wildlife corridors, whether it be emergency medical services, housing, the list will go on. I think it’s important for us to know that number,” said Mayor Sean Krausert. “With that information at hand, perhaps we’ll be able to advocate, perhaps have a conversation with the province, perhaps with Alberta Municipalities.”

The motion was first brought forward by Coun. Tanya Foubert, but aimed to specifically look at the extra costs being incurred each time Canmore Fire-Rescue responds to medical-related calls when ambulances aren’t available.

She called the fire department the “backstop of our emergency medical system,” which has seen increasing demands for their services when it comes to medical emergencies.

“If there is no ambulance services available immediately, or if it’s a very serious call, the fire department is also dispatched," Foubert said. "It’s often, and we see in the stats, they’re the first to arrive because of the way ambulances are being dispatched in the province and the issues our healthcare system are facing, in general, are creating an acute crisis with respect to this service.”

The Town has similar agreements with neighbouring municipalities when it comes to using fire services. If Canmore Fire-Rescue responds to a call in the Municipal District of Bighorn – or vice versa – they can bill one another for the services provided.

The financials are outlined in the master fee schedule, which accounts for hours of service and scenarios to bill.

“If we’re able to put a price on this service, I think we as a council and elected officials and a community are going to better understand what we’re spending and supporting ambulances in our community. … I’m not saying we do anything with this information at all,” Foubert said. “This is the most direct route I can find to put a number on that.”

Municipalities are creations of the province and are used as a way to funnel services to local communities. In recent years, however, significant downloading of provincial expenses has impacted municipal budgets.

The provincial funding for Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) and Family Resource Network (FRN) hasn’t increased, but with funding not keeping pace with inflation it means municipalities can either choose to bridge that gap or let resources decline.

“By not indexing FCSS or FRN to inflation every year the provincial government is cutting our budgets to these services, especially when our population continues to grow at plus three per cent a year,” Foubert said. “This is a downloading and we have chosen as a community to pay the difference. Some communities don’t and cut services.”

Krausert called tracking those costs a “fantastic number to get” to help with the Town’s advocacy work.

AHS and the province took over the delivery of ambulance services from municipalities about a decade ago, which prior to that saw Canmore have an integrated service between ambulances and the fire department.

However, when it was taken over by the province and a centralized dispatch system was created, it meant once a local ambulance is in another community it can be called on to aid that area.

The province has made efforts in recent months to correct some of the issues, but specifically lessen the lack of ambulance coverage.

The province created an EMS advisory committee in January to look at the service gaps, staffing issues and hours of work. The group is expected to deliver a final report with recommendations this summer.

When AHS representatives met with Canmore council in January, they outlined the availability of resources such as ambulances, trucks and staff are impacted services across Alberta. Though AHS is receiving resources to buy new ambulances, supply chain issues have led to significant wait times for new equipment.

AHS announced in early July four new ambulances were available in Calgary, which is expected to lessen the need for outside ambulances from neighbouring municipalities.

The operating hours for CT scans were increased at Canmore General Hospital, which has seen fewer ambulances needed from Canmore and Banff transporting people into Calgary. It means ambulances are more likely to stay in the Bow Valley rather than in Calgary.

In tracking those costs, Canmore wouldn’t be the first to do so.

Coun. Joanna McCallum noted the Town of Gibbons invoices the province for the time spent by its fire-rescue crews responding to medical calls when ambulances are redirected elsewhere and not on the scene.

“This is helpful information in terms of advocacy," said McCallum. "They’re a small community and I’ve heard of another doing the same … It’s a little passive aggressive, but it gets the point across.”

The Town of Gibbons began tracking it about a year ago after service calls for firefighters responding to medical needs were increasing.

Dan Deck, Gibbons' mayor, said it’s easy to track calls and allowed them to send an invoice to AHS for $11,287.50. Deck said the invoice was sent, opened at AHS and sent back with a return to sender on it. Town council has made the decision to send it back by registered mail since someone at AHS will have to sign for it.

“We doubt if we’re going to get anything back from it, but I can see at Alberta Municipalities someone will probably put forward a motion for the government to pay for these services. … Our first responders didn’t really sign up for that, but they do it because it’s for the good of the town,” Deck said.

He noted how cuts in provincial funding such as the Municipal Sustainability Initiative, no increases in social services funding and the increased medical calls being responded to by part-time firefighters have a significant impact on municipal taxpayers.

“We have to keep pushing it to the forefront,” Deck said. “This is the appropriate time because they’re running campaigns as part of the election cycle. They not only have a balanced budget, but a surplus. Hopefully, some of the more enlightened MLAs will see it will help people if they give some of the money back to municipalities. It’s great to say they’ll invest in health, add more medics to offset it, but we’re still receiving the (medical) calls.”

The Town of Okotoks completes a tracking report of provincial downloading such as on Family and Community Support Services, the increase of traffic fine revenue being collected by the province and ambulance delays that see firefighters respond.

However, they don’t have a specific financial amount of what those costs mean to municipal taxpayers.

The Town of Canmore has previously tried to fight against the downloading of costs on municipal taxpayers.

For the past two years, the Town was invoiced by Alberta Justice and Solicitor General for work related to DNA analysis work by Canmore RCMP.

The province and the federal government have a biology casework analysis agreement for the service that has the federal government pay 46 per cent and the province the rest. In 2019-20, the province had 544 samples required and a further 343 in 2020-21 from RCMP units that cost the Alberta government $1.13 million.

The Alberta government began charging municipalities in 2021 the provincial portion of the costs.

The Town declined to pay the 2021 fee and worked with Alberta Municipalities' to advocate against the downloading, but with little success.

The 2021 bill was about $4,500 and earlier this year it was $3,200. Though the amount was little, the Town took issue with it being passed off to them without the ability to have an agreement in place, receiving any notice or time to budget for the costs.

A Feb. 1 letter from Marlin Degrand, the assistant deputy minister for the Justice and Solicitor General said that municipal police services have “autonomy to determine which cases to submit for DNA analysis through their own internal policy and guidelines.”

A municipality is largely the plaything of the province and provides local services on behalf of the provincial government. They collect education taxes on its behalf – which make up a significant amount of local taxes – and face the ire of local residents who believe it’s the municipality using it rather than the province.

The Family Resource Network contract replaced ParentLink, which was designed to help early childhood education, and its mandate expanded to go to age 18. However, no extra funding was provided, meaning it came from municipalities or not at all.

The much-discussed provincial plan to move away from RCMP policing has had Premier Jason Kenney promise no additional costs would be pushed on municipalities, but the plan has seen significant opposition from municipal governments and the National Police Federation, who represent more than 20,000 RCMP officers in Canada.

The downloading of costs to municipalities has become more common in recent years in provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia.

Coun. Jeff Hilstad said it would not only give council and the public information, but it helps with advocacy work with the province. Coun. Jeff Mah noted it was a “key first step and maybe it opens some other opportunities such as passive aggressive invoicing.”

Krausert said getting the information would also allow Town staff to show specifically how downloading impacts the municipal yearly budget.

“It’d be good information to know how much of our budget is being spent on things that should be provided by the province,” he said.