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Departure of minister in travel fiasco affects Lac La Biche County discussions, says mayor

Lac La Biche County's mayor says he hasn't travelled out of country during the holidays.

LAC LA BICHE - Lac La Biche County's mayor says he hasn't travelled out of country during the holidays. And while the continuing fallout from elected officials and provincial staff who did book departures over the holidays has concerned many Albertans, Omer Moghrabi says one of those departures in particular has raised some closer-to-home concerns.

"We are quite disappointed that she was involved," said Moghrabi, speaking of Tracy Allard, who was the Minister of Municipal Affairs before news of her family trip to Hawaii over the holidays. Allard has since resigned her position.

Allard was instrumental in ongoing discussions with Lac La Biche County officials over several evolving projects and issues relating to millions of potential dollars in funding, said Moghrabi.

"She does her homework when it comes to the municipalities. She was really standing up for municipalities," he told Lakeland Today.

Prior to her resignation last week, a meeting with Allard, Moghrabi, senior administrators and council representatives had been planned for Jan. 14. The meeting was to look at several issues, with particular attention to funding for the Improvement District 349, a land-base which includes the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range that neighbours Lac La Biche County to the east. The range also borders the Municipal District of Bonnyville and is associated to the City of Cold Lake through the air force base.

349 history

The air weapons range, which also includes a significant amount of industrial usage,  was once part of Lac La Biche County's tax-base — and had been since it was given to the region when the former MD of Bonnyville split its jurisdiction 20 years ago to create the rural Lac La Biche municipality. But in 2012  the range taken over by the provincial government in exchange for a plan that saw the Lac La Biche County receive $17 million a year and new land near Conklin that was said to be worth millions in oil and gas tax revenue.

The $17 million deal, struck by former area MLA Ray Danyluk, had a five-year expiry that wasn't highlighted to the public until the last year of the arrangement, and the decline in the oil and gas industry reduced opportunities in the land near Conklin. In recent years, Lac La Biche County was receiving $1 million a year from the provincial government from the ID 349 area.  According to recent reports, however, Lac La Biche County is not part of a new agreement struck between the province and the City of Cold Lake, the Municipal District of Bonnyville,  and the Village of Glendon  and the Town of Bonnyville that splits more than $25 million in annual industrial tax revenue from ID 349 between the four municipalities. The agreement, which was officially announced on November 30, goes further to say that the MD of Bonnyville will once again take the area into its municipal jurisdiction.

The agreement has also included a $3.5 million, one-time allocation to each of the Fishing Lake and Elizabeth Metis Settlements in the form of special grant funding.

Lac La Biche County officials were not part of official negotiations on the new agreement. 

More talk

While news of the finalized agreement — touted as a historic announcement — was made a month ago,  Moghrabi says there is still more to discuss. The planned meeting with Allard was sceduled from before the announcement was made. He says there are still questions about funding for the seniors' housing portion of municipal tax requisitions, as well as "verbal agreements" regarding ongoing funding.

"We still want some clarification on it, and that's what we were going to talk to the minister about," said Moghrabi, adding that the municipality's relationship with Ric McIvor, the Alberta Transportation minister now taking over Allard's portfolio, is very strong. 

"We have a good relationship with Minister McIvor and we think our meeting will go ahead," said Moghrabi, explaining that Allard's resignation over the holiday travel issue is unfortunate, but also  "water under the bridge. 

"Our job is to continue to work with the minister — whoever that is — to get the best for our residents," he said.

 Moghrabi hopes to confirm the meeting with McIvor this week.

Hanson pleased with agreement

Despite the mayor's belief that more can be done, Dave Hanson, the MLA for the Bonnyville and Cold Lake area — and a former provincial representative for the Lac La Biche area — says the new agreement has been "signed off". He says it had been one of his top priorities to find a solution to the "ID 349 problem" and to provide additional tax revenues to the four municipalities that are part of the agreement. He was especially pleased to include the additional funding to the Metis settlements associated to the air weapons range area

While he feels the work of the four municipalities and the province has paid off, he says the door is always open if Lac La Biche County officials need to discuss the agreement further. 

"I'm always willing to talk to Mayor Moghrabi," said Hanson.

The most recent assessment numbers from the Alberta government on the ID 349 area shows it has approximately $2.5 billion in linear, machinery and equipment and industrial tax assessment.