A Sturgeon County interest group has accused Mayor Tom Flynn of fiscal mismanagement – an accusation the mayor says is untrue.
The Sturgeon United Residents for Effective Accountable Leadership group took out an ad in the Sept. 27 Gazette that accuses Flynn of having a lack of fiscal responsibility.
The ad attempts to project conditions in Sturgeon County in 2021 based on trends in population, payroll, housing starts, subdivision applications, and roads maintained. It predicts the county will see fewer residential subdivisions, “less than 60 housing starts per year,” another $11 million in payroll “with no accountability,” a “$60M to $100M Operations Building constructed with your tax dollars,” under one per cent population growth, and no change in the amount of roads maintained.
“This demonstrates lack of fiscal responsibility,” the ad concludes.
In an in-person and email interview, SUREAL president John Wasmuth said he created this analysis based on data from the county’s annual financial reports and Statistics Canada.
As far as the Gazette can tell, the graph’s data points appear to match those shown in those sources.
SUREAL has previously positioned itself as an apolitical group, with Wasmuth telling county council and some 200 people last Feb. 6 that “We are not lobbying for or against any candidates at this point and time.”
When asked why the group had stepped into the election, Wasmuth said he wanted “to provide the facts to residents” and respond to election ads that quoted Flynn as saying “I can’t wait to see where we’ll be in four years.”
He would not say if this ad was an endorsement of Flynn’s opponent, Alanna Hnatiw, who was a founding member of SUREAL.
“You can interpret it whatever way you want, but we’re looking for good governance,” he said.
When asked if she or anyone from her campaign was involved with this ad, Hnatiw said in an email that she had made a pointed effort not to be involved with any SUREAL decisions or actions since she left the group, which was shortly before she announced her candidacy for county mayor.
Wasmuth said SUREAL was questioning Flynn’s fiscal responsibility based on the county’s upward trend in payroll.
“We can see nothing that justifies the level of hiring that the county has done.”
Wasmuth said he based his payroll prediction on the fact that it had consistently increased over the last 11 years, particularly under CAO Peter Tarnawsky, whose contract council voted to renew.
Fiscal mismanagement was also “partially” responsible for the trends in subdivisions and housing starts, he said.
“Certain councillors particularly have made it known that they are anti-development,” he said (he declined to say which ones), and council had passed laws that made it “extremely onerous” to subdivide land.
Wasmuth said that council had been prepared to hire PCL Construction to design Phase 1 of the operations building (also known as the county campus) before SUREAL intervened, and has simply put the project on hold until after the election.
Council voted 5-1 last February to halt all work on a detailed design for the county campus project after SUREAL called for a feasibility study on it. Councillor Ferd Caron was the only dissenting vote and Councillor Susan Evans was absent.
While Wasmuth acknowledged that the 2006 boom and 2008 bust in Alberta influenced the trends in this graph, he said those factors were beyond the county’s control.
Poor analysis, says Plain
The Gazette asked Richard Plain, former St. Albert mayor and an economist specializing in municipal finance who is unaffiliated with any Sturgeon County campaign, to review the SUREAL ad.
“This ad is a political document masquerading as an economic analysis,” he said in an email and phone interview.
Plain said the ad attributes all the trends it shows solely to Flynn, despite the fact that he would have been just one vote on council, been building on the work of previous councils, and not even on council before 2009.
“The analysis doesn’t even touch on the fact that Alberta is just recovering from a very severe recession and was in a doozey of another one in 2009,” Plain said, both of which would have affected employment, population growth, and residential development.
It is also impossible in economics to accurately predict the future by simply extending lines over time, he continued.
“There are all these other components tied into it,” Plain said, such as capital investment, other levels of government and Alberta’s boom-bust economy. This analysis does not explain how it accounts for them, he said.
“The only thing that is crystal clear from their ad is that the SUREAL group are not Mayor Tom Flynn supporters,” Plain said.
Ad lacks context, says Flynn
Flynn said the ad was biased and did not take everything into consideration.
“If you look at our non-residential assessment, it has gone up 109 per cent in that same time period,” he said, due in part to major investments by Agrium, Pembina, and Evonik.
The county has had to hire planners, engineers and assessors for these projects, as well as staff to meet new requirements imposed by the province, the Capital Region Board, and other groups. They’ve also been building up the fire department.
Flynn disagreed that the county’s payroll would continue to rise as the ad suggests. The county had hired the people it needed to meet its strategic plan, and he saw no major need to hire more. Housing starts fell sharply in 2008 due to the post-boom recession, and have stayed low as new rules from the Capital Region Board restrict development in the Sturgeon Valley.
As for the county campus, Flynn said council moved to get plans for it this year in case federal grants became available (they didn’t) and planned to build it over 20 to 30 years with public consultation. The $60-$100 million figure appears to include the operating cost of the full facility after 20 years.
“There was never any intent of building a building right away,” he said, and no intent to build the whole thing in four years.
Flynn disagreed that council’s actions showed a lack of fiscal responsibility.
“You have to invest in (business) before you can get it to come,” he said, and the county’s actions were meant to prepare for major businesses like the Sturgeon Refinery.
Wasmuth said SUREAL would likely run more ads this election.