Arbitrator rules on city and county resident services, cost sharing

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A decision has been reached in the Services Collaboration Arbitration, an issue that has strained relations between the Town of Whitecourt and Woodlands County in recent years.

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Arbitrator Deborah M. Howes released her decision Thursday establishing funding formulas for various services.

Howes concluded that Woodlands should contribute to the running and capital costs of the town’s recreation and library, but declined to decide on county contributions to building a new arts center.

“Council is reviewing the decision… to understand how to resolve the issues addressed,” Woodlands Mayor John Burrows said in a statement.

Burrows said the county council was looking “to find the best way forward that is in the best interests of Woodlands County.”

The Town of Whitecourt released a statement that they are also reviewing the decision, will continue to work with Woodlands and appreciate their relationship.

The dispute relates to the city and county’s Intermunicipal Collaboration Framework (ICF), with ICFs needed to guide shared services between neighboring municipalities.

Local issues include water, fire, airport, recreation, library and transportation services, Howes wrote.

In November 2020, the city and county agreed to go to arbitration over the ICF, which under provincial law was to be completed in April 2021.

Hearings were held in August and September 2021, according to Howes’ decision.

Howes summarized Woodlands’ position as the ICF being limited to “Woodlands Airport Services and Whitecourt Fire Services, Indoor Pool and Ice Rink”.

In its decision, Howes relied on Whitecourt’s definition of intermunicipal services as necessary services, activities or products provided by one community and used by other communities. The Woodlands definition excluded infrastructure and investment costs.

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Presentation of recreational and cultural prizes

Among the recreational and cultural matters arbitrated was the civic center including an arts, culture and convention center and an expanded library. County contributions to a new municipal office were not requested.

Woodlands argued that the center was a future service with no evidence of benefit to county residents, Howes wrote.

Howes concluded that the center had the potential to become an intermunicipal utility, but the city’s requests for county contributions to construction were “premature”.

She directed the city and county to add library and arts center planning to the ICF.

On rec, Howes wrote that despite Woodlands’ arguments, “the leisure services provided by Whitecourt are not limited to the indoor swimming pool and ice rinks”.

Whitecourt submitted statistics that county residents make up 27% of Millar Center users and 44% of Eastlink Park users.

Howes established a formula for Woodlands contributions based on the populations of the county wards of Whitecourt West, Whitecourt Central and Whitecourt East. The city is bound by a similar formula for rec provided by the county.

For the Whitecourt and District Agricultural Society, Howes has set the city’s contribution at $25,000 for 2020, which will increase by 2% each year ($26,010 in 2022).

For the forest interpretive center, the city requested a county contribution of 50% of capital and operating costs (excluding city council chambers), Howes wrote.

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Howes cited historic partnerships in determining that Woodlands will contribute 50% for the heritage center and park, excluding the museum, visitor center and council chambers. Woodlands has its own visitor information center and museum, Howes wrote.

Funding formulas for county contributions to Whitecourt Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) have also been established based on the populations of Whitecourt West, Whitecourt Central and Whitecourt East.

Funding for the Whitecourt and District Public Library has been a hot topic in recent months.

Howes concluded that despite Woodlands’ arguments, the evidence is “overwhelming” that Woodlands residents benefit from the Whitecourt Library.

Howes concluded that Woodlands should contribute to all operating and capital costs, based on a formula taking into account the population of Whitecourt West, Whitecourt Central and Whitecourt East.

Decisions made on water, fire, other financing

The city argued for maintaining the terms of the 2020 water and wastewater agreement, while Woodlands argued that the connection fee for Woodlands Business Park was too high, Howes wrote.

Under the agreement, the city provides water and wastewater services to county residents in an area surrounding the city.

Howes disagrees that connection fees are too high. She ordered that the agreement be amended to add dispute resolution and make it impossible to terminate the agreement unless both parties agree.

For fire services, Howes has established a new cost-sharing formula for calls in the Whitecourt Fire District from 2023. The district includes the town and the Woodlands areas to the west and north of the city, and north of Anselmo.

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“I agree with Whitecourt that Woodlands should contribute based on a formula tied to calling hours,” Howes wrote.

Outside the Whitecourt Fire District, Howes wrote that Woodlands will reimburse Whitecourt for mutual aid on a cost recovery basis.

Meanwhile, Woodlands has sought capital and operating contributions from the city for Whitecourt Airport, Howes wrote.

The city argued that there was minimal evidence that the airport benefits city residents, but agreed that it should contribute some operating costs.

Howes sided with Woodlands in saying that the airport benefits city residents and decided that the city should contribute to both capital and operating expenses. It set the city’s contribution at $40,000 for 2020, which will increase by 2% each year ($41,616 in 2022).
Howes also concluded that Woodlands should contribute to Whitecourt’s transit service, setting a contribution of $20,000 for 2020, which will increase by 2% each year ($20,808 in 2022).

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