SUREAL questions on county campus

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New group wants building stopped

A Sturgeon County group plans to confront county council next week about its plans to build a new county campus – plans Mayor Tom Flynn hinted may soon be on hold.

The Sturgeon United Residents for Effective Accountable Leadership (SUREAL) group released a letter this week calling on residents to come to the county office next Monday to speak to council about questions on taxes, the budget and the county campus.

Flynn said the county will meet with SUREAL members Monday to respond to their questions.

The SUREAL letter, which was anonymous, states, incorrectly, that county budgets and staffing “have increased over 50% in the last number (sic) years while the number of residents, County borders and County population have remained constant.”

The letter also states “the County’s employees have recently been awarded salary increases of 3% to 6%” and that the county is pushing forward to approve a new staff complex “that could cost taxpayers 65 to 100 Million Dollars.” The letter also criticizes council for poor road maintenance.

Duane Gibb, a financial services advisor in the county and SUREAL member, said the group formed back in December when council put out a request for proposals for an architect to design the county campus. The group, which has about 10 core members, was concerned about a lack of public consultation on the project.

“There seems to be very few people aware of what is going on,” he said.

The justification for the county campus appears to be based on a 2012 study by Bennett Architect, Gibb said.

“It’s a five-year-old report,” he said, and much has changed since then.

“There seems to be a big rush to get cement into the ground,” he continued, and the group wants the project stopped pending more public consultation.

“We want some accountability.”

County staff are now scattered between nine buildings, four of which are leased. The 2012 Bennett Architect report recommended consolidating them into a single county-owned campus to save money.

When the county’s finance department updated the 2012 study last year, it found that the county would save about $11.6 million over 20 years by consolidating its staff into a single operations building – the first part of the county campus. The 2016 budget included $200,000 to start design work on the campus.

The county’s webpage on the county campus says that work on the operations building was proposed to start this year, with a fleet building and administration centre to follow by 2025.

Right now, county council has committed $5 million to jointly service the campus site with Morinville, county corporate support manager Rick Wojtkiw said in an email.

“Council has not committed to any building construction at this time and has only reviewed conceptual drawings of a Municipal Operations Building,” he said.

He also noted that the county’s budget has grown by about 29 per cent, not 50, since 2012, and that its staff had grown by about 13 per cent (not including summer employees). Some employees have likely seen six per cent wage increases since 2012 due to the county’s grid-based pay system. This year’s budget includes a one per cent wage hike in line with that negotiated with unions.

While the county’s borders have likely stayed the same since 2012, housing starts suggest that the county’s population had increased by about 1,500 residents in the last five years, Wojtkiw said. (The county does not do a census, and the latest federal data is from 2011.)

The county has also seen considerable industrial growth that is pounding local roads, Mayor Tom Flynn said. Council recently voted to use contractors to fix 128 km of roads over the next 10 years, and this March will get a report on what technologies to use to better preserve roads.

The county campus would cost about $50 million if it were built all at once, Flynn said. Council is hiring an architect to draw plans so that council can respond quickly if federal or provincial cash becomes available.

“We’re a long ways away from making any decision on building anything.”

Flynn said that council needed to slow down and better connect with residents about the campus plans, adding that council expects to hear next meeting about technologies that could reduce the need for the project.

Flynn said council would meet with SUREAL’s members Monday to answer their questions.

“We look forward to the opportunity to hear their concerns.”

Correction

A previous version of this story had Rick Wojtkiw saying that the county’s population had likely grown in the last five years as it had had about 1,500 new homes built in that period.

Wojtkiw actually said that the county’s population had likely grown by up to 1,500 people in the last five years due to housing starts in that time.

Stats Canada data released after this story was published shows that the county’s population rose by 917 people between 2011 and 2016.

The Gazette apologizes for the error.

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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.