Town warns it may withdraw rescue services from highways

Paul Bickford/NNSL photo Deputy mayor Donna Lee Jungkind, left, and Fire Chief Ross Potter stand next to a rescue vehicle at the Fire Hall.

Paul Bickford/NNSL photo
Deputy mayor Donna Lee Jungkind, left, and Fire Chief Ross Potter stand next to a rescue vehicle at the Fire Hall.

The Town of Hay River says it doesn’t want to do it but it is prepared to withdraw rescue services from highways outside of its boundaries.

That’s if a funding arrangement for operation and maintenance of the service can’t be reached with the GNWT.

Town council called a public meeting on Nov. 22 to advise residents of what might be a controversial and emotional showdown with the GNWT.

“It puts us in a bad spot where we want to be good neighbours and we want to make sure that, if somebody is hurt on the highway, we can go out and reach out and get them,” said Mayor Brad Mapes. “But we need to be able to cover our costs for that.”

According to deputy mayor Donna Lee Jungkind, the town spends about $300,000 annually to cover operation and maintenance of the rescue services.

“And that’s before we even do a call,” she said. “That’s to have the equipment, to have it in our garages, to have the supplies, to do the training, to have people here available ready to do those calls.”

The town gets no GNWT funding for operation and maintenance of the service.

Yet, it offers rescue services to about 800 kilometres of highway outside town limits – south to the NWT/Alberta border, all the way to Fort Resolution, halfway to Fort Smith and halfway to Fort Simpson, according to Fire Chief Ross Potter.

Speaking to The Hub the day after the public meeting, Jungkind stressed the town is prepared to withdraw the rescue services, if necessary.

“We haven’t come up with that time yet,” she said. “We have some councillors who have a specific time that they’re thinking about right now that they would like to see.”

However, Jungkind said no motion has been presented to council.

“Over the next two to three weeks, we’ll have to see what the government comes back to us with to decide what that date might be,” she said. “But is there potentially going to be a date? Yes.”

Jungkind said that means the town might be just weeks away from setting a withdrawal date.

“We don’t want to do it but absolutely it could possibly happen,” she said. “There’s absolutely no doubt that, if the next couple of weeks don’t go well, there can be a date delivered to the GNWT to tell them when we would be stopping services.”

Kevin Brezinski, director of public safety with the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs , said he has previously heard the funding concerns from Hay River.

However, he said the existing funding program is set up for capital projects, not operation and maintenance.

“At the moment, there’s $185,000 available through the ground ambulance and highway rescue service funding program,” he said, noting that amount is for all of the NWT and supports training, minor equipment purchases and minor infrastructure.

“It’s available to all communities that deliver services of that nature and, as we all know, there are multiple communities in the system that have needs of that nature,” he said.

Brezinski said the program used to offer $400,000 but that was reduced to $185,000 this year.

“It also recognized that, at the end of the day, some good progress had been made over the last eight or nine years,” he said, noting about $1.8 million was doled out since 2007.

And Brezinski said about $400,000 of that went to Hay River.

The program wasn’t designed for operation and maintenance, he said. “And the reason for that is communities, as we all know, get other funding streams from the GNWT. One being operation and maintenance.”

Jungkind said the cut in capital funding for highway rescue was kind of the last straw.

Normally, the town gets about $50,000 in capital funding, but it was cut to $21,000 this year.

Brezinski said Hay River is the only community that Municipal and Community Affairs has been hearing concerns from about the funding arrangement, and places like Yellowknife and Fort Simpson seems to be doing quite well.

“And that’s as a result of their cost-recovery efforts through fees that they level through their bylaws,” he said. “And we’ve extended an olive branch to Hay River to try to sort of work toward understanding the gaps and deficiencies and challenges there. That work is yet to be done.”

Hay River also charges fees for calls outside its boundaries but faces challenges in collecting.

Brezinski said, if the request from Hay River is for $300,000 for operation and maintenance, there is work ahead.

The official said he would not even contemplate answering a hypothetical question about a possible withdrawal of service by Hay River.

At the Nov. 22 meeting, town council said highway rescue services are provided in Inuvik and Behchoko through contractual arrangements.

Brezinski said health authorities in those communities offer ground ambulance services through different funding arrangements.

Jungkind said the bottom line is council doesn’t think it’s fair that Hay River residents should pay to provide a service that should be paid for by the GNWT.

And she added Hay River has provided the service for decades.

The town will seek support from Enterprise, the Hay River Reserve, Fort Resolution, Fort Smith, Kakisa, Fort Providence and Fort Simpson in its dispute with the government.

Mapes said one easy solution, which he has already pitched to the territorial government, would be that Hay River would still respond to emergencies on the highway but bill the GNWT for the cost.

The mayor said it would be very hard for Hay River to cut off the rescue service but the town needs to play a “little bit of hardball” on the funding issue.

–Paul Bickford