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Mayor Column - December 19, 2014

Many challenges, achievements for City Council in 2014

The year 2014 provided no shortage of challenging issues and events for City Council. We faced many serious and unique challenges, and these were opportunities for Council to demonstrate leadership in order to achieve positive results for our city.

Urban Drilling
The most prominent issue during the first half of 2014 was urban oil and gas drilling. There was widespread concern among Lethbridge residents about GoldenKey Oil’s plans to drill oil wells on future residential land in West Lethbridge. City Council facilitated a community information meeting in late February to help citizens get comprehensive, objective information on this issue. We also met with the Alberta Energy Minister in April to discuss our concerns and advocate on behalf of our citizens.

Although many in our community were relieved in May when GoldenKey abandoned its drilling plans in Lethbridge, we recognized that similar situations could arise again under the existing regulatory environment in Alberta. That’s why City Council proposed an emergent resolution on urban drilling which received 85-per-cent support in September from the Alberta Association of Urban Municipalities.

The Alberta government has been considering the urban drilling issue for more than two years. Our resolution called for amendments to sections of the MGA which currently allow resource drilling applications to override existing municipal land-use designations at the exclusive discretion of the Alberta Energy Regulator. We see our proposal as a compromise which acknowledges the importance of resource development to our province while recognizing local community values.

Regional Ambulance Dispatch
The year also began with the provincial government proceeding with plans to remove ambulance dispatch services from our Public Safety Communication Centre in Lethbridge and consolidate them to Calgary. This approach would have compromised the excellent emergency service provided in Lethbridge through our integrated Fire and EMS. After some very determined advocacy by City Council, our local MLAs, the mayors of our regional communities and local citizens, the province reversed course in late February and committed to operating satellite ambulance dispatch centres in Lethbridge, Red Deer and Fort McMurray.

Since then, we’ve seen a great deal of collaboration between City of Lethbridge staff and Alberta Health Services which has resulted in a new long-term agreement for the City to remain the local supplier of ambulance services. In addition, work is progressing toward a new agreement for ambulance dispatch services. I was also very encouraged by the mandate given by Premier Jim Prentice earlier this fall to Health Minister Stephen Mandel to pursue region-based decision making.

Death of Councillor Galloway
In the midst of dealing with these significant issues, Council was faced in mid-February with the shocking news that one of our colleagues, Councillor Wade Galloway, had died in an avalanche. Wade had been elected to his first term on Council only four months earlier. Wade was passionate about transparency in local government and more open availability of public data, and he had significant influence in both of those areas despite his short time as our colleague.

Water Crisis
Only a month later, in mid-March, we found ourselves in a state of local emergency due to a water crisis. High turbidity in the Oldman River was clogging filters at our water treatment plant to the point we were unable to produce potable water, and we were certain we would have to push contaminated water into our system and reservoirs just to ensure adequate fire protection. We appealed to our community to conserve water, and you listened. The community rallied, and consumption was curtailed so drastically that we were able to avert a major, long-term disruption in water supply that would have been created by contaminating our water system. Council has approved measures to increase our water reservoir capacity in order to reduce the chances of a similar situation in the future.

A byelection was held in May to fill the vacant seat on City Council, and we welcomed Councillor Bridget Mearns to Council.

Flood Threat
Heavy rains in June led to another emergency due to the threat of flooding in the river valley. Over the several days that our Emergency Operations Centre was activated, I witnessed outstanding collaboration and cooperation between our City staff and provincial agencies including Alberta Health Services. By working together, we were able to provide regular updates to keep the public informed about the rapidly-evolving situation.

Council’s Strategic Goals
Later in June, City Council approved our 2014-2017 Strategic Plan, which identifies the priorities we intend to address during our term in office. We worked together over several months to develop this Strategic Plan which sets out six strategic goals which now guide much of Council’s decision making.

Since June, we have begun to address several of those goals. As Council, we took stronger ownership of the City’s operating budget process by introducing mechanisms for more rigorous performance measurement and ordering more regular reports to Council regarding the City’s finances. We began a careful review of the service model options under which we could introduce curbside recycling. Our budget discussions resulted in a property tax increase averaging just 3.2 per cent per year for four years. This is one of the smallest increases in Alberta for comparably-sized cities, where tax increases are in the range of four-to-five per cent.

Leisure Complex Approved
In early August, City Council voted to expand the scope of an approved aquatic centre project to include all components of a multi-purpose leisure complex at the Crossings in West Lethbridge. It was exciting to be part of such a historic decision that will deliver a major leisure complex that residents of our city have identified as their top priority for the past decade.

The first phase is already under construction and includes two NHL-sized ice surfaces and a 10-sheet curling facility. Construction of these amenities will be complete by early 2016, and they will be open with full programming in the fall of that year. Detailed design of Phase 2 will occur in 2015 with construction following from 2016-2019. Phase 2 will include an aquatic centre with water slides, a lazy river and whirlpools as well as a multi-sport field house, a fitness centre, gymnasiums, an indoor track, and indoor playground and a child minding area.

Major commercial development is also poised to begin in 2015 at the Crossings, and a number of other major projects are in detailed planning or under construction at Lethbridge College, the University of Lethbridge and Chinook Regional Hospital.

Continuous Improvement
We have a great deal to appreciate about the quality of life in Lethbridge. Although Calgary is a wonderful city, a visit there reminds me of the things I love about Lethbridge such as short commutes, readily available and affordable parking,  not to mention great choices for shopping, entertainment and dining. Another thing I love is our abundant parks. Beautiful green spaces and walking trails are within easy walking distance from virtually anywhere in our city. Even though we can be proud of our city, we are focused on continuous improvement and ensuring that Lethbridge residents are getting good value for their tax dollars.

In closing, I want to wish a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all.

Mayor Chris Spearman
December 19, 2014