County hits brakes on campus

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SUREAL cheers decision

County council has hit the brakes on a proposed multi-million dollar county campus project in response to public protests.

Sturgeon County council voted 5-1 in favour of a motion from Coun. Jerry Kaup to halt all work on a detailed design for the proposed county campus project Tuesday. Coun. Ferd Caron was opposed, while Coun. Susan Evans was absent.

Administration had recommended that council pay PCL Construction $349,826 to create detailed plans for the first phase of the county campus, which would include a municipal operations building, work yard and several storage buildings.

Construction was originally proposed to start this year on county lands next to the upcoming Morinville rec-centre, with a new fleet and administration building to follow in 2022 and 2025.

Exactly how much this project would cost is hard to pin down, as council has yet to determine the exact details of each building, said county corporate support manager Rick Wojtkiw in an interview.

A June 2016 analysis posted on the county’s website suggests that phase one would cost about $15.6 million, with the whole project costing $60.8 million. Mayor Tom Flynn has pegged the campus cost at $50 million.

A 2012 study (updated last year) suggested that the county would save about $11.6 million over 20 years by consolidating its staff into the operations building, as it would no longer have to lease space for them. Wojtkiw in council said that the county currently spends about $135,000 a year on leasing space.

Last week, some 200 people came to a special council meeting to protest the county campus and other issues. The citizens group that called for the meeting, SUREAL (Sturgeon United Residents for Effective Accountable Leadership), asked council to stop the campus project, pending a feasibility study.

Wojtkiw proposed a revised design process Tuesday that would cover questions such as green energy and heating options and result in a finished plan by December. He also suggested studying other efficiencies before proceeding with a design.

Mayor Tom Flynn said that the entire point of getting this design done was to be ready to act if any grants came up to support it.

“There was no commitment to building.”

He added, however, that the current slate of grants (such as the Canada 150 Fund) didn’t appear to apply to projects such as this one. He was also interested in hearing more about workplace efficiency and green energy concepts that could affect this building.

“We need to slow this down,” he said.

“I think there’s going to have to be a much longer consultation process with the public as we move forward.”

Coun. Jerry Kaup said that council went through a similar debate to this one back when it built its current county office. Council cut the building’s size by about a third due to public pressure, “and we’re paying for it now,” he said.

“At this time, we’d better hold off,” he said, acknowledging the pressure from SUREAL on the matter.

“We best just do the research and do a proper job when we build it.”

Wojtkiw noted that stopping the county campus would not stop plans to jointly service these lands with the Town of Morinville.

Caron argued that the cost of this project could easily rise in the future, and that council should have a plan to move quickly on it.

“To totally stop this just puts us behind the eight-ball if an opportunity arises.”

After the vote, Coun. Patrick Tighe withdrew a motion he had made to stop work on the county campus pending an independent feasibility analysis.

SUREAL spokesperson Don Levers, who was at the meeting, said he was happy council agreed to take a second look at the campus project.

“One of the issues we found while we were canvassing the residents was nobody really knew about what this county campus was,” he said.

He hoped council would further research the issue and bring more details to the community, hopefully through an open forum.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.