The arbitration process between Whitecourt and Woodlands County on their Intermunicipal Collaboration Framework is nearing a close. However, it will take several months before a decision is rendered by the arbitrator, Deborah Howes. The entire process is viewable on the Woodlands County Administration YouTube page and is just shy of 24 hours, split between six different videos. During the final scheduled day of arbitration, September 29, the counsels discussed various issues.
Mr. Sean Ward, one of two lawyers representing the Town of Whitecourt, took issue with comments heard at a previous meeting, referring to the County’s counsel as my friend. “My friend eluded to the evidence of benefit from town services for the county being very low, and it’s important to keep in mind that there was no obligation historically to compile specific usage statistics because the previous agreement was based on a catchment model.”
Rather than compiling data based on usage, the County counsel suggested that the town collect data on every county resident who uses town services and base funding off that. They also stated that the previous cost-share was of “very limited value” to Woodlands County residents.
“In our position, that ignores even the specific view of their financial expert who indicated that a history of cost-sharing was indicative of a certain level of service being required and affordable. The County has never indicated that they no longer want their residents to have equal access to those facilities and services, which have continued on that basis since January 1, 2020. In our view, it would be inequitable to continue to get that benefit while no longer contributing to the service.” Ward added that his client saw a benefit for County residents accessing Town services.
Sharon Roberts, one of two lawyers for Woodlands County, said that if the County isn’t paying for a service, residents shouldn’t receive the service unless its user-pay. “We don’t disagree. That’s an appropriate principle. If the county chooses not to pay for specific things and the town says, well, we are withdrawing that service from your residents, we understand, and we accept that outcome. We don’t have evidence showing that our residents are actually using those services, so this may be the litmus test for whether residents actually are using any of those services so that we can make a proper agreement next time around or voluntarily agree to amend this agreement if we can see an actual benefit to the county’s residents.”
As to what services Roberts was referring to, she mentioned, as an example, the services at the Carlan Community Centre, including the Boys and Girls Club and the Whitecourt Food Bank. “We don’t have evidence of what benefit, if any, is coming to county residents. We shouldn’t have to pay for those things. There’s been an assumption of what the benefit is and who’s benefiting without any accountability by the town to show us who’s using those services.”
Another service that the County had an issue with was the dump. Roberts said that there should be a residential or commercial record of who is dumping and whether they are county residents or town residents. She said that since the town wants to use usage data from the fire department when coming up with a cost for that, they should do the same with waste at the landfill, meaning they should only have to pay for the waste county residents deliver. “I don’t think it’s a big ask. I think it would be something that ought to be in the agreement if it isn’t there now. There should be tracking of what’s being processed and who’s bringing in what so that the parties can each evaluate.”
Ward, the town’s counsel, said that Roberts was misrepresenting how the landfill operates. “(Tracking) relates to commercial volumes. It doesn’t relate to the individuals who drop off at the landfill. I don’t know if my friend is suggesting that they should hire additional employees so that those individuals would go into a building, register with their address and wait while their waste is measured and that that should be required for every single user that accesses the landfill in order to come up with the volumes accurately enough to distribute cost on that basis, but that’s not how it operates.” He also stated that doing so would be “inconsistent with the principle of minimizing administrative costs and burden.”
County counsel then brought up services relating to the Whitecourt Fire Department. “All those services related to fire suppression we have not included. Firesmart and all of that, very little work of that has been done in the county, and the evidence is consistent with that, so I don’t think that we should be providing payment for services for town residents. I’ve specifically excluded fire prevention services because those are delivered by the Woodland’s County Fire Department within the county.” She stated that Woodlands County was doing its own Firesmart programs.
Ward responded that there was no evidence that Woodlands County was doing their own Firesmart-related things. “The evidence is directly to the contrary. Those services, like all fire services, are provided to the entire Whitecourt Fire District, so that includes the county as well as the town. That submission that it should be carved off or excluded is inconsistent with the evidence.”
Though both parties disagreed quite a bit, there were also several agreements made through the four-hour-long video. “I hear both of you saying that the equitable sharing of costs is about determining what is fair for the municipality who is contributing to pay for the benefit its residents receive for the services delivered. Where you differ is what is included in the bucket to determine what the cost is,” said arbitrator Deborah Howes, to which both sides agreed.
She stated that it was imperative that each side adequately describe each service included in the cost-share agreement so that future disagreements would be less likely since both sides would know what is and isn’t included. Howes has until February 1 to decide and get things out to each party ahead of the legislation deadline of April 1. She said she would attempt to get things wrapped up earlier if possible.
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press