One of the burning issues council for the MD of Pincher Creek has faced this past year is the process in which residents are billed for emergency fire services. Traditionally, the Pincher Creek Emergency Services Commission has billed municipalities for costs related to extinguishing fires, with the municipalities then billing the respective resident to recuperate the cost.
When MD residents were billed $66,000 for last summer’s Snake Trail fire, however, the situation ignited debate around how fair the PCESC’s firefighting rates were. MD council is also reviewing with the commission an alternative invoicing structure so the municipality would no longer need to play the middleman in dealing with bills.
Council has paid the $66,000 PCESC bill for the Snake Trail fire and has approved waiving the residents’ payment deadline and late fees in the hope that the commission will adjust the firefighting charges. The April 13 regular council meeting saw council extend the grace period an additional 90 days.
Since the PCESC meetings are not open to the public, director of finance Meghan Dobie suggested inviting Chief Dave Cox to discuss the Snake Trail fire bill at the May 11 council meeting.
“The ratepayers that have been really affected by this wouldn’t get a chance to hear from him unless he does it in front of our council,” Ms. Dobie said, adding that further communication needed to be extended to the property owners about where council was at in regards to negotiations about the bills with the commission.
“We don’t want ratepayers to pay them until we’ve worked though some of these kinks,” she said.
The issue of continuing to extend the billing deadline involves the allotted time frames insurance companies establish in processing claims. For that reason, said chief administrative officer Troy MacCulloch, it was important to discuss with the affected residents their insurance plans to determine how much of the $66,000 bill could be covered if no changes ultimately were made.
“Ideally this is not where we’d want to go, but we want to have this conversation and keep that channel open with the ratepayers to let them know that we are working on this but we are beholden to the commission at this time,” CAO MacCulloch added.
While not opposed to waiving the billing deadline, Coun. Quentin Stevick said the time was drawing near for the MD to take action.
“We’ve kicked this can around a lot, and it seems like we just keep kicking it into the neighbour’s yard, which happens to be emergency services,” Coun. Stevick said. Once the $66,000 bill is revisited and insurance coverage considered, he continued, the MD should just absorb the cost instead of passing it on to the landowners.
“There’s been no determination of a cause; there’s no one that can be held culpable for this. The five residents who own land adjoining our MD road are being held financially responsible for something that they didn’t do,” he said. “I think very seriously we as an MD council need to be writing off the difference.”
Coun. Terry Yagos agreed.
“We’re hoping when the chief comes back he’s going to relook at the charges and make a change in it, and probably what’s not covered we’ll have to pick it up. These guys didn’t do anything wrong; it wasn’t their mistake, it wasn’t their fault,” he said.
“Right now let’s hope the chief comes back with a new charge, and it’s something that’s easier for us to live with.”
A formal decision on writing off the Snake Trail fire will be made at a later council meeting.
Burmis and Beaver Mines
Since the MD requested a review on how the PCESC handles billing, bills will continue to be sent according to the existing structure. With multiple fires typically occurring each summer, Coun. Rick Lemire said the issue would be ongoing.
“We’re looking at a drought and we’re in a fire ban and it’s April, so keep your hats on — this could pile up pretty quick,” he said.
Two bills have already been sent to the MD since the request to review the billing structure was made: a house fire off Highway 3 and a garage fire in Beaver Mines, which cost $12,000 and $2,825 respectively.
With the MD awaiting word on if changes to firefighting rates will be implemented, Ms. Dobie said the municipality was stuck in an awkward position of still being obligated to pay for bills it didn’t agree with. Currently, the MD has also waived the bill deadline for the two residents, though again concerns with insurance timelines meant a decision should be made regarding payment.
“We are still getting billed under the old model, and will continue to get billed until there are those formal changes that are done,” she said.
Though still questioning the rate amounts for extinguishing the fires, Coun. Stevick said the MD’s actions towards the two residential fires needed to be different than what could be done for the Snake Trail fire.
“Both of these bills have a point of origin for the fire,” he said. “My sympathies go out to the individuals who had these fires, but there is a point of origin. We are under the current regulations and we are responsible to pay the emergency services.”
As a result, he added, the bills should be forwarded to the individuals, with the MD’s role of middleman clearly explained.
What precedent the MD set, said Coun. Yagos, was also important to consider.
“We’ve got to be careful too because other people have paid inflated bills in the past, and all of a sudden we say ‘OK, you guys don’t have to pay this.’ Other people might come and say ‘Hey, what about us?’ ” he said. “We’ve got to be careful. We’re opening up a can of worms here.”
Council ultimately voted in favour of paying the PCESC bill and then invoicing the residents for the costs of extinguishing the fires. Administration was also directed to communicate with each landowner that council was willing to work with them on a one-on-one basis if insurance coverage was denied or insufficient.
MD council’s next meeting will be held Tuesday, April 27, at 1 p.m. An online agenda will be made available at bit.ly/MDcouncil and the link to attend the virtual meeting can be accessed at www.mdpinchercreek.ab.ca.
Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze