Jasper Mayor Richard Ireland gave his state of the municipality address during the Jasper Park Chamber of Commerce’s general meeting on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. | Scott Hayes / Jasper FitzhughScott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Opportunity was the theme of Mayor Richard Ireland’s state of the municipality address to the Jasper Park Chamber of Commerce during its general meeting on May 8.

“Opportunity is the word which I find best describes the current state of the Municipality of Jasper,” he said. “We are in a state of opportunity.”

He took part of that early opportunity during the speech to confront the elephant in the room: public transit. It isn’t the issue in and of itself but rather “simply a current battlefield of a larger issue of approach, of trust and of relationships.”

Lately, Jasper Transit has come under scrutiny amid request for proposals for a $3.6-million transit facility as part of a $5-million federal grant to support the procurement of transit capital items.

That grant would also support the purchase of up to three zero-emission (EV) buses, a shift from the municipality contracting out the services to ownership. 

According to projections, the municipality might still need to borrow $726,000 for the facility. The estimated savings associated with the municipality owning its own fleet and facility, however, would be $215,000 per year.

A petition was begun by resident Debbie Taylor to oppose the current proposed rate of municipal spending on the buses and the transit building. That petition has nearly 600 signatures as of last week.

In a letter to Jasper Municipal Council back in April, JPCC President Troy Mills acknowledged the benefits of public transit but expressed concerns about unproven electric buses and “proposing a multi-decade financial and operational commitment with a vague and incomplete business plan.”

“The potential costs associated with the operations and infrastructure of this project could very quickly dwarf the grant money and leave our community with an additional, ongoing tax burden,” he wrote.

During his speech, Mayor Ireland admitted that there would always be detractors, some who may never be swayed.

“Others see the benefits of easing congestion, increasing social equity, supporting the vulnerable, narrowing the gap between real wages and a living wage, improving the environment, enhancing the visitor experience, bolstering business and driving economic activity,” Ireland said.

“Even the initiator of the petition (shared on your platform) states, ‘I am supportive of the development of the Jasper Transit service and the benefits it offers to our community.’ I agree. I think the community agrees. Transit presents a significant opportunity. It has such great potential.”

He took the issue to talk about the Municipality’s commitment to strong and ethical financial management. The renovations at the Jasper Activity Centre, for example, have continued on time and on budget.

The recent upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant and to install services along Connaught Drive to support new housing projects were not subjected to any spiraling costs, he said. The Connaught servicing project actually came in approximately $1 million under budget.

“Nothing has spiraled,” Ireland said. “No project is or was out of control.”

He referred the audience to the municipality’s audited financial statements and its current financial position. Its accumulated surplus is $8 million, and its current debt stands at about $24.5 million dollars, leaving approximately $12.5 million dollars of unused debt capacity to the debt limit of $37 million.

Its current debt servicing stands at about $2 million leaving $4.1 million in unused annual debt servicing capacity to the $6 million limit.

Ireland noted the municipality also had unrestricted and restricted reserves totaling about $12 million.

“According to our independent audit, the municipality cannot fairly be described as being in a precarious financial situation,” he said.

“In fairness though, if we had to borrow another $12 million to construct affordable housing, for example, we would certainly be pushing hard against our debt limit. That is why we continue to seek private investors and other grant funding for housing, and why we were so disappointed to be shut out from two applications to the federal Rapid Housing Initiative and were excluded from even applying for the Housing Accelerator Fund.”

In returning to his theme, Ireland said that one of Jasper’s biggest opportunities is in its resilience, which relies on a cohesive community. His example to demonstrate that was the COVID Recovery Task Force but he then looked to the new Jasper Destination Stewardship Plan. Led by Tourism Jasper, the 10-year guiding document seeks to optimize the visitor economy while also protecting the authenticity of Jasper.

“Collaboration was, for a time, embedded in our collective consciousness. It permeated our relationships. I believe it still can. That’s our greatest opportunity,” he said.

“The Jasper Park Chamber of Commerce has that opportunity. You want to transition to a role of greater advocacy. You should … you can be such a force for a unified community.”

By Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on May 13, 2024 at 16:00

This item reprinted with permission from    The Fitzhugh    Jasper, Alberta
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