Newly-elected White City mayor Brian Fergusson began his Dec. 9 virtual address to the White City-Emerald Park Business Association bearing an olive branch of reconciliation.
By the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, the good vibes had wilted as attendees took issue with the town’s continued pursuit of annexation within the RM of Edenwold.
Fergusson sensed the looming tension, noting in his presentation the “elephant in the room” was the deteriorated state of the White City’s relationship with its neighbouring municipalities.
“It hasn’t been a secret that the communication and relationships we have with all of our neighbouring communities, perhaps, could stand some improvement,” Fergusson said. “It’s top of mind, not just with myself and some other councillors but also administration. It’s going to be a focus for us to do a reset on that so we can renew those relationships.”
Some of those tensions became evident during an question-and-answer exchange between Fergusson and Emerald Park business owner Matt Kuzmicz. Kuzmicz lives in White City and questioned the town’s approach to its annexation proposal, which includes Emerald Park and numerous adjacent lands.
“In the business district, I’m happy with the governance and it sure seems to me that you want to annex, or take over, the business district to pay for (the future development) you want to do,” Kuzmicz said.
Fergusson replied he would agree to disagree, and added he believes support within White City itself to be strongly in favour of annexation.
“I think it’s important to note there were three mayoral candidates in the last election and Bruce (Evans) and I garnered 93 percent of the vote and both of us are supportive of annexation,” Fergusson said. “That’s pretty indicative.”
“What percentage of eligible voters voted?” Kuzmicz asked.
“Quite frankly it’s moot,” Fergusson said, though later added voter turnout was 23 per cent. “Throughout this process, the RM has had the opportunity to put this question to its own ratepayers and has failed to do so.”
TO FRONT LOAD OR NOT TO FRONT LOAD?
Fergusson and town manager Ken Kolb, along with planner Mauricio Jimenez, were present for the virtual event to update the business leaders on Town of White City priorities in upcoming months. Among those is the development of a Town Centre along with adjacent Betteridge Road. Fergusson said the town is working with White City Investments and Caverhill Developments. Two subdivisions are pending approval, with an overall plan for 200 lots with either residential or commercial zoning.
“It’s more than a business district,” Fergusson said. “There’s a lot more to that.”
As part of the opening stages, Fergusson said Betteridge Road improvements will include the town building water and sewer lines in advance, a move Kolb has termed front-ending in support of future development.
When asked about recent reports of White City’s borrowing capacity having been exceeded, Kolb said most of the debt incurred was for infrastructure construction that will be supported through the development of property.
“It will be supported through growth either through development levies or utility rates,” Kolb said. “Typically, communities are going to incur significant debt to expand. A lot of that is supported through growth. Very little of this will be supported through taxes. Certainly, other municipalities across Saskatchewan have borrowed significant amount of money to grow and the (Saskatchewan Municipal Board) looks at the business case on how you are going to pay that money back in terms of the burden on taxpayers.”
Fergusson added his support for the need to incur debt to support that growth.
“It’s only through the submission of appropriate plans that the SMB will approve those debt limits, but that’s been our past practice and is expected to be the future practice as well,” he said.
That drew questions from Ben Kuzmicz, a long-time local developer with land north of Betteridge Road, who queried why the town is taking on a financial risk that he said is normally the responsibility of a land developer. He also asked if the town is providing land for the development of a school, as opposed to the land developer.
“This would be setting a new precedent buying land (for a school) that is normally supplied by the developer,” Ben Kuzmicz said.
Fergusson said there would be a cost regardless of who provides the land for a school “that is ultimately borne by the taxpayer” and that the town “wanted to make sure that land was set aside as a location” in the event a new school comes in the area comes to pass.
Kolb added that a high school and third elementary school are “top priorities” for the Prairie Valley School Division.
“Certainly, being able to develop a joint-use facility with the high school raises us on that priority list,” Kolb said.
Ben Kuzmicz objected to the front-loaded construction of infrastructure when it puts others at a disadvantage, and that it wasn’t appropriate for existing taxpayers to be funding any of the new development costs.
“I feel I’m at a disadvantage because I’ve now learned you have funded new infrastructure from money (lot buyers) have paid through off-site charges,” Ben Kuzmicz said. “When they come and buy a lot, their dreams and aspirations are not having their lot price going to pay someone else’s development. New development should be funded through the developer.
“Speaking as a White City resident, I really don’t like you taking my tax dollars to fund someone else’s risk. Let the developer take the risk. They can put up the costs for infrastructure.”
Fergusson replied those infrastructure costs are covered under the Town Centre development plans, and that the infrastructure costs are borne by the developers of those lands.
“But you haven’t received the funds,” Ben Kuzmicz said. “You are front-loading it. That’s the whole issue.”
Ben Kuzmicz and Kolb disagreed on whether the town has regularly front-loaded infrastructure development in the past.
“We’ve up-fronted everything,” Ben Kuzmicz, a land developer in the area, said. “We paid you sewer and water and put in the rest through a servicing agreement.”
Kolb said in the past, those development fees were collected on a lot by lot basis, where this time, most of the costs are collected up front.
“Growth pays for growth,” Kolb said. “That’s always been the principle and with this new development levy model, it gives us a chance to manage that development levy and construction costs so that the developer is paying for those off-site services.”
Fergusson said the installation of this infrastructure was to plan for future recreational uses such as a water park in those areas.
PARTNERSHIPS ‘CRITICAL’ FOR FUTURE GROWTH
Economic development was also a focus in Fergusson’s presentation. He noted town representatives have met with the business community to learn about its overall strengths and challenges.
“Economic development efforts will require focus and efforts, particularly to work with the limitation and challenges we have,” Fergusson said. “It’s better we focus on actions driven by our three strategic priorities where we grow from our existing base, maintain our overall competitive overall business and tax rates. We are going to assist with business expansion projects and small business where we improve signage and business engagement.”
The mayor added that attracting more economic investment is also a priority, with targeted incentives designed to bring businesses to the Town Centre development.
“(We are going to) be a leader in marketing for White City and the region, provide leadership on web marketing and e-presence, and partner where partnerships with local and regional partners are critical,” Fergusson said.
The town is planning to continue its work with consultants to develop the incentives needed to bring business to the region.
As one example, part of the rationale for the proposed multi-use recreational facility (referred to as MURF) is to bolster White City’s case to get a high school built in the community close to this facility.
“It’s been said in the past that a facility will be a factor considered by the Ministry of Education in building a high school,” Fergusson said, adding the construction of a third elementary school in the area will also help.
Fergusson also addressed water and sewer costs in the community as it is “top-of-mind” for residents. He noted after a study that water and sewer rates had to increase, in order to ensure inflation had a lesser impact on future rates.
“Certainly, the growth of the community will help that on an ongoing basis,” Fergusson said. “It’s a good quality of water and Sask. Water meets the specs it needs to provide good, safe water. But like most communities, we face a water hardness issue.”
Fergusson added water treatment capacity challenges impact ability to grow overall, and that the RM of Edenwold and White City are working on their joint facility to resolve these issues.
Keith Borkowsky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Quad Town Forum