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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Fort McMurray Needs Help - NOW!

I read with interest Paul Stanway’s Edmonton Sun recent column outlining, yet again, the critical state of the infrastructure needs in Fort McMurray. He notes the fact this municipality is about to outpace Lethbridge in population and is rapidly closing in on Red Deer. Yet the province, who controls the land surrounding Fort McMurray that is available for development of housing has been virtually frozen in the face of such growth…an not as if they could not see it coming – oil sands plants don’t spring up over night.

To be fair, the province did release some land for residential development in 1999 but it was done so ineptly (a very polite way to describe that fiasco) that they literally gave away acres of land for free to a private developer who then took the free land site as part of a larger project, and at such a low price that part of the deal was questioned as well. He turned it all into housing and realized a multimillion dollar windfall from the free land. The recent Auditor General investigation on this deal outlined the utter ineptness of the deal but was not allowed to follow the money resulting from the transaction or to go into why political actions were taken afterwards, like a narrow scope appraisal that was ordered to “prove” the validity of the price. Too bad. There may have been even more interesting information that would have resulted from a wider scope of authority for the Auditor General’s office.

The government has reneged on promises made to the municipality and industry in May 2005 in response to the third business case report, in less than a decade, that was done and presented to government outlining the need and estimate costs and set priorities for the region. The promise was to provide funding help meet the growth demands caused by oil sands developments so the local tax base could eventually catch up to the growth and then sustain itself. A Ministerial committee, including Guy Boutilier, the Minister of Environment and the local MLA, said the province would help fund public needs like water treatment recreational, schools and hospital facilities, amongst others form surpluses in the 2004-05 fiscal year. It never happened.

Even more amazing was testimony by government officials before recent EUB hearings where the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo intervened in yet another effort to try to get the attention of the province. This was a very radical step for a municipality but nothing else they have tried to get the necessary help from the province had worked very effectively. The admission was made in those hearings that the 2005 Wood Buffalo Business Case was never given any credence by the province. They said they had not sought or received any third party verification of the numbers and it was never dealt with by the province. The province admitted they essentially ignored the joint report of industry and the community on the needs for the region. Astonishing!

Mark Norris says he wants a new government department to deal with northern issues. He is a little out of touch. We already have that department. It is called Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. It is a small department that needs more clout and more cash to deliver on the mandate and promises made and to realize the potential of the north. I agree northern issues are critical to the future of the province as a whole. They have 10% of the population and generate 67% of our wealth. They need more than respect they need help NOW!