The amalgamation of Black Diamond and Turner Valley is back on the table, nine years after the idea was rejected in a plebiscite.
Town councillors in both communities agreed to seek a $150,000 Alberta Community Partnership grant to pay for a feasibility study to explore the potential of merging the two communities.
The last time the two towns considered amalgamating in 2007, it was defeated in a plebiscite as Black Diamond residents opposed the proposal, while those in Turner Valley supported it.
Discussions recently resurfaced after Black Diamond and Turner Valley signed a Friendship Agreement in 2012, a partnership that sees the towns co-operate in several areas, including sharing resources and funding shared initiatives.
“It’s inevitable as far as I’m concerned as we move forward,” said Turner Valley Coun. Dona Fluter. “Thinking has changed, particularly in our region, in terms of efficiencies and relational collaboration – municipalities working together.”
Fluter was elected Turner Valley’s mayor in October 2007, the same time the plebisicte was held. In Turner Valley, 493 residents voted yes and 258 voted against amalgamation, while in Black Diamond 228 voted in favour and 557 against.
According to previous issues of the Western Wheel, residents at the time were concerned about the lack of information to make an informed decision; losing their towns’ individual identifies; Turner Valley’s ongoing struggles with its 100-year oil and gas history; and a potential $500,000 bill for police services when the amalgamated communities hit a population of 5,000.
Since the Friendship Agreement was signed, the two communities have been working more collaboratively on sharing services and employees and aligning bylaws.
“We are working really well together right now,” Fluter said. “The hardest thing for municipalities, especially when you are standing alone, is it is always a financial challenge because we don’t have the tax base or dollars to do things the big communities are doing. We have the potential to do things better than we are doing today and more have efficiencies around them. The bottom line is we want to do the best job we can do in delivering service.”
Turner Valley Mayor Kelly Tuck said it makes sense to see what amalgamation would look like and how the communities can evolve.
“Municipalities are nothing more than a service delivery,” she said. “I would hope we would see continued success in service delivery, be it garbage, recycling, recreation, being able to better utilize some of the employees, equipment and what we can combine together.”
Black Diamond Mayor Sharlene Brown also believes the communities are ready to take this step.
“I think it’s exciting to see what it would look like with one decision-making body between two communities,” she said. “The Friendship Agreement has taken us as far as it can go at this time. It’s time for the next step.”
Brown said no one knows what the process will look like.
“Right now all we’re doing is looking at getting a grant,” she said. “We haven’t worked out any of the details what it would look like. We will work out the details if we get the grant.”
Having one decision-making body could make things more efficient, said Brown, as some shared services are difficult to operate with two bosses.
She expects to learn if the Towns will receive the grant within the next two months. At that time they will decide on the next steps.
“Potentially if we have all the pieces in place and we accelerate the process, could we look at having one decision-making body by October 2017?” Brown said. “There is always the potential.”
If the Towns receive the Alberta Community Partnership grant, Fluter said the process will be done openly.
“We want to make sure the public remains engaged with the process and is a part of the evolution of it, but we will take the first steps to at least bring something back to them,” she said. “I don’t believe there is a taxpayer in any community that isn’t interested in doing everything we can to maintain reasonable taxes with good healthy service delivery.”
Fluter said she understands that the topic of amalgamation is sensitive to some residents, but encourages them to look at the big picture.
“People sometimes get very emotional about it and it is a very emotional subject,” she said. “If you remove the emotional side of things and look at it as a business, for a lot of reasons makes sense. I don’t believe we will lose anything in terms of who we are, our identify. It will enhance who we are.”