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Air Weapons Range to become improvement district under proposed deal

The provincial government is looking to turn the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range and a portion of land further north into an improvement district in an effort to deal with the City of Cold Lake's sustainability issue.

The provincial government is looking to turn the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range and a portion of land further north into an improvement district in an effort to deal with the City of Cold Lake's sustainability issue.

Minister of Finance Lloyd Snelgrove met privately with local councils last week to share the preliminary deal the province has come up with to deal with the city's sustainability issue and how tax assessment from the Air Weapons Range should be split amongst neighbouring municipalities.

The provincial government started looking at redrawing municipal boundaries after the City of Cold Lake and former 4 Wing base commander Col. David Wheeler suggested the city should receive tax assessment from the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range to help alleviate its deficit and sustainability issues. The assessment from oilsands operations on the bombing range currently goes to the County of Lac La Biche.

Bonnyville – Cold Lake MLA Genia Leskiw said under the proposed plan, tax assessment from the improvement district would at first go to Cold Lake and Lac La Biche. The MD of Bonnyville would later be compensated for maintaining roads to access the Air Weapons Range, she said.

The area has great potential for growth, she said, and “once the threshold has reached what they are thinking the City of Cold Lake and Lac La Biche would be getting, then other areas affected in the area could apply for the growth money.”

However, details on how the improvement district would be run have not been worked out yet, she said. The tax assessment would not be going to other municipalities for a few years, she said.

“Basically, right now they're dealing with Lac La Biche and Cold Lake.”

The four municipalities to sign the final agreement are Cold Lake, the MD of Bonnyville, Lac La Biche and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

Leskiw said Snelgrove did not have time to meet with the Town of Bonnyville last week, but has been invited to meet with council Sept. 13.

She said she has been working to get Snelgrove and Municipal Affair Minister Hector Goudreau to meet with Town council.

“When Minister Snelgrove comes in to discuss it with the Town of Bonnyville, they can ask him the hard-hitting questions. But they weren't snubbed. The Town of Bonnyville was not snubbed. I've been trying endlessly to get a meeting with the Town of Bonnyville.”

MD of Bonnyville Reeve Ed Rondeau said he hopes the improvement district would be run by a board of governors from various municipalities, but it hasn't been negotiated yet. MD council proposed some changes on how it should be governed.

“We want to be a part of that role, so does Cold Lake and Lac La Biche and I'm sure (Fort) McMurray and Bonnyville. So that was probably where some of our largest concerns are,” he said.

Council also wants to be compensated for maintaining the MD roads used to access the Air Weapons Range – parts of which are strictly used to access the range, said Rondeau.

“At the very least we need to get costs out of it – the monies that the ratepayers of the MD of Bonnyville are putting in to accessing the Air Weapons Range has to come back out somehow.”

The province will take back some of the information councils shared to revise the agreement and Rondeau hopes council will have a final draft to review this week.

“It's a deal and it's not a deal right now.”

Cold Lake Mayor Craig Copeland said his council also had the chance to give feedback after viewing the draft deal.

“By no means did we sign off on any agreement last night. And so we're countering back with some suggestions just like I'm sure all the different counties did.”

Copeland said while he was pleased overall with how the proposed deal would work for Cold Lake, the city would benefit more in the long run.

“This deal won't help us address our short term infrastructure needs. It will help whoever is around in council in say, 2020,” he said.

“The City of Cold Lake's portion is small in the beginning, but will grow out as the oilsands operations grow out on the Air Weapons Range and in the lands that they are allocating away from Wood Buffalo.”

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo borders the weapons range to the north. Tax assessment from future oilsands growth on a portion of that land and on the Air Weapons Range looks like it will go to Cold Lake, said Copeland, explaining how this enables Lac La Biche to continue to receive the same amount of assessment it receives now.

Cold Lake council recommended two changes to the deal, but Copeland would not elaborate on them until the final deal is signed.

“There's a couple of areas in our opinion that need to be tweaked that we think are justified,” he said.

Copeland said he was pleased Snelgrove, Leskiw, Goudreau, Lac La Biche – St. Paul MLA Ray Danyluk and Premier Ed Stelmach were all heavily involved in the negotiations, noting how Snelgrove deserves a lot of credit for trying to address the issues at 4 Wing and in Cold Lake.

“Somebody took a good look at Cold Lake and is trying to help the city.”

Town of Bonnyville Coun. Gene Sobolewski said Bonnyville has been left out of the deal.

“It's actually specifically excluded from the arrangement,” he said.

“The sustainability issues are identical in Bonnyville. The infrastructure debt is just as great in Bonnyville as proportionate to the

City of Cold Lake. So the issues are the same and yet we've been specifically excluded.”

He said he has expressed his concerns to Leskiw and other provincial ministers and expects council to put forward an official position at its meeting today.

“Rather than targeting assessment and direct assessment and impacting our neighbours directly, there are other mechanisms and other things that should be considered to address the overall issue in our region,” Sobolewski said he told Leskiw. “Taxation and assessment is finite and there are other ways to be able to negotiate and we maintained that even during our mediation discussions.”

He said Bonnyville is impacted by pressures resulting from industry growth just as Cold Lake is and believes the entire region should be considered when looking at growth-related issues.

Aside from its financial issues, Sobolewski feels Bonnyville should receive some of the tax assessment from the Air Weapons Range because many people and service companies from Bonnyville work there.

“That Air Weapons Range has a dramatic impact on Bonnyville,” he said.

“I would dispute openly the City's assertion that they have an entitlement to it, simply because 4 Wing uses the Air Weapons Range and has a designated air weapons range for their aircraft targets.”

For now, Sobolewski said he will wait and see what happens and “hopefully council will provide an official position, and away we go.”

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