LAC LA BICHE - Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was in Lac La Biche and Plamondon Thursday and Friday, meeting with dignitaries, discussing local issues, promoting his government's Alberta Recovery Plan and making some funding announcements. Kenney also sat down with news staff in the Lac La Biche POST newspaper office on Thursday night to explain a little bit about the northeastern Alberta tour.
"I've been pretty much locked-down in Edmonton over the whole COVID for obvious reasons, so I really wanted to get out — back to the real world and see how people are coping," said the premier, "to talk to the MLAs and community leaders to talk about the public health and the economic challenges we've been facing."
The Premier also admitted to a little Lakeland pleasure while doing some Alberta business.
"This weekend, I've actually taken a bit of a fishing weekend up north," he said.
The two-day business portion of the stop over in the province's northeast included visits to the Cold Lake Fish Hatchery, the St. Paul UFO landing pad, Lac La Biche's Al Kareem Mosque and the Festival Centre in Plamondon. The premier and area MLAs met behind closed doors in each community with municipal officials.
Plamondon paving plan
In Plamondon on Friday morning at a private meeting with an invite-only crowd, the premier officially announced the province's intent to pay for the $400,000 re-paving of the Plamondon main street. The project will see an 800-metre stretch of the hamlet's main road paved. The portion of the road is part of the Alberta Transportation highway network and has been a sore topic for area residents for more than a year. Lac La Biche County councillors and administration have been dealing with regional provincial officials about the roadway — which was left in rough shape after underground utility pipe replacements over the last two years.
In a press release, which was issued in both English and French, the premier said the paving project — the second of two provincial funding initiatives announced for Plamondon in the last two weeks — will make life better.
"These improvements to vital infrastructure in Plamondon will do just that: create jobs when they are needed most, while building lasting projects to make life better. Our recovery plan will get Albertans working again all across our province," stated Kenney,
Fort McMurray- Lac La Biche MLA Laila Goodridge who accompanied the premier at Lac La Biche and Plamondon meetings explaining that the roadwork and an earlier announcement of a $1.8 million in provincial funding for the construction of two wastewater lift stations to help Plamondon's utility network are part of the larger provincial plan.
"Repairing our roads and building new wastewater infrastructure are part of the larger economic recovery plan Alberta’s government has put together," stated Goodridge, who is also Alberta's parliamentary secretary for the Francophonie. "Not only will this support long-term economic growth, but also immediately provide jobs for Albertans.”
Speaking with staff at the Lac La Biche POST office, Kenney said projects like the ones announced during his Lakeland tour are part of the current government's "unprecedented investments in infrastructure to get people back to work now, during the height of this coronavirus recession, and also to build the architecture of the future economy."
Lac La Biche County Mayor Omer Moghrabi was in Plamondon on Thursday for the official announcement of the funding agreement that municipal and provincial officials have been discussing for several months. He was pleased to see the province moving ahead with the funding — and he'd like to see more agreements.
“Building and supporting rural infrastructure in Alberta is key. Our County is pleased that the province recognizes that all Albertans must be served equally regardless of where they live by paving Main Street Plamondon, one of our municipality’s main centres. We look forward to continuing to work with our colleagues in the Government of Alberta and the Ministry of Transportation," said the mayor.
While the mayor was pleased with the announcements, he was surprised by the visit.
Going into Wednesday, the day before Kenney was expected to be in the community, the mayor and municipal administrators had not received official notice of the premier's arrival. It was a similar situation in St. Paul, where the premier's visit and scheduled meetings with local officials weren't released publicly.
In recent weeks, municipal officials in many rural municipalities across the province have challenged the premier and his government on planned changes to the way that large oil and gas producers can be taxed by municipalities. Suspecting the government will alter the model for evaluating assessment levels of industrial property — in a way that is expected to reduce the tax burdens on big business — municipal leaders have staged demonstrations and organized letter-campaigns opposing the plan. Last week, Moghrabi and MD of Bonnyville Reeve Greg Sawchuk took part in a demonstration at the Alberta Legislative Grounds along with 100 other municipal leaders, expressing their concerns to provincial politicians that the new plan's worst-case scenario would rip more than $300 million from the tax base of affected municipalities.
The area's municipal officials have not commented on the discussions held behind closed doors with the premier in recent days.
During his interview in the Lac La Biche POST newsroom, the Premier downplayed any hard-feelings, saying he sensed that municipal officials had jumped the gun with their reactions.
"No decisions have been made, and I think some people are jumping the gun a little bit here," he said, describing the current review of the tax assessment rules as more of a discussion paper looking at a legislative housekeeping issue. He also emphasized that a lot of the discussion has focused around the natural gas industry in southern Alberta where he said some of the tax levies against companies is "out of whack" with what they have as assets. Recognizing that the discussion has raised concerns from municipalities across Alberta with various industrial tax bases, the premier said more discussions will include municipal officials. "We will listen to municipalities... we are not going to do anything that is radical. We are not going to drastically undermine the revenue base of the RMs (rural municipalities).
Despite the assurances, municipal leaders continue to draw defensive lines against the plan. St. Paul County Reeve Steve Upham issued a news release on Thursday morning saying that with the proposed assessment changes, "residents and county operations will suffer."
Moghrabi has issued a similar statement, calling for residents to contact the premier and their MLA about concerns. He says the process of the plan has not involved municipal officials to this point. By issuing media releases and encouraging the public to contact their provincial representatives, Moghrabi hopes the residents take part in the call to action and become part of a process that could impact them and millions of other Albertans directly if passed.
"This is their time to engage," he said.
During the Premier's visit, one planned event was cancelled shortly after it was announced. On Thursday afternoon at 4:30 pm, a media notice was issued advising the premier would be at the "Canalta Lodge" in Lac La Biche at 9 am on Friday to announce changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to help support unemployed workers. The event was cancelled in an advisory on Friday morning sent at 8:59 am.