CANMORE – The Town of Canmore is moving ahead with a $14.15 million fire hall on Palliser Trail in 2022, with plans to fund the project with $9.65 million in debt financing.
Canmore council approved a capital project to move forward with the works to prepare the site for development and design process for the new fire hall this year. The work will be funded from $1.35 million from the municipal sustainability initiative program and general capital reserves.
General manager of infrastructure Whitney Smithers told council by undertaking site preparing work and design this year, administration will be able to better understand what the final budget to build a new fire hall would be.
"We have been, for a while now, separating out the design in advance of the construction portion of the project and that enables us to get better detail on the costing and refine our costing in that regard," Smithers said.
In December 2019, council voted in favour of locating a new eight-bay fire hall along Palliser Trail, which was a recommendation out of a fire hall study commissioned to look at options to replace the current facility at the corner of 10th Street and Railway Avenue.
The current fire hall does not meet the immediate and future needs for Canmore Fire-Rescue. The location is constrained during the busy summer months due to traffic and congestion, making it harder for firefighters to get to the hall to respond to emergency calls and for fire trucks to deploy.
The report also recommended the municipality establish a second fire hall in Three Sisters in the future.
While there is no single location in the community that could provide the department with ideal travel times to all neighbourhoods, the location on Palliser Trail ticks many of the boxes administration was looking for, such as access to the highway. It has a better location in terms of response times for areas of Canmore on the north side of the railway tracks and there is a parcel of municipally-owned land that is suitable for the use.
Council voted on Feb. 23 to approve the 2021 operating budget and capital plan and accept for planning purposes the three-year capital and operating budget summaries. There was debate, however, around how to pay for the new fire hall, which council has given direction to administration to design as a carbon neutral facility.
With $9.65 million in debt financing, manager of financial services Chelsey Richardson said it would increase the amount of debt the municipality currently has, as well as the annual debt servicing budget.
Richardson said it would represent 15.3 per cent of the municipality's own debt limit of $63.1 million for a single project. For 2021, the Town's projected debt is approximately $40 million. The debt servicing for the loan would require $550,000 annually, which translates into a 1.9 per cent municipal property tax increase in 2023.
She recommended council consider selling the current fire hall site to help pay for the new one, which has been appraised at $3.85 million in value.
"Following that transition to the new fire hall, we would sell the old fire hall and use the proceeds from the sale to pay down the debt taken," Richardson said. "The advantage of this approach is to provide us with increased flexibility for future debt-funded projects."
Councillor Joanna McCallum put forward a successful amendment to the motion recommended by administration to explore the potential for leasing the fire hall, as well as selling it, as part of the funding approach for the new facility.
"That corner, in my mind, is a very important corner in our downtown core," McCallum said. "There might be other options available to us that would allow us to hang onto that corner for the long term, but still receive some revenue for it in the [meantime]."
McCallum argued the decision is about having a vision for Canmore's downtown core for the next 20 to 50 years.
In addition to the capital project, council considered the operational funding for the department during its budget deliberations. It includes proposed changes to the staffing model recommended by another study commissioned by the municipality.
The staffing model for the Town in the past has seen two full-time firefighters available at the hall 24/7 to respond to calls, and when additional staff are needed, they would respond as on-call paid responders.
The staffing required to respond to a structure fire, for example, resulted in the two full-time members waiting at the hall for additional staff to be able to deploy.
The staffing study recommendations led to a pilot peak staffing project for Canmore Fire-Rescue and saw an additional two firefighters available to respond to calls during the daytime and the busiest time of the year – the three months of summer.
COVID-19 resulted in some changes to how the staffing pilot worked. Council approved changes to provide one additional full-time firefighter in the hall over a four-month period.
General manager of services Sally Caudill said the peak staffing pilot – including the modified version in 2020 – helped reduce response times and meant fire trucks could roll out of the hall sooner to respond to calls for help.
Caudill also said it reduced the department's reliance on paid on-call staff, which was also a recommendation from the staffing study.
"Ultimately, the fire master plan and our recommendation is that we need to start to move toward more permanent staff in the hall at all times," she said, adding it would be expensive to transition the department to a new staffing model in one year.
"[We recommend] a phased-in approach of making that staffing increase."
The decision will see three full-time firefighters be available to respond for eight months in 2021. That will expand to 12 months next year. The total salaries, wages and benefits budgeted this year to support the change is $2.45 million.
Costs to continue making the change to the staffing levels will be approved by council in future budgets as they come forward.