Medicine Hat News

Power plant will be election issue

Officials say exploring possible future in a review is smart, but with months left before election, no big decisions should be made

- COLLIN GALLANT cgallant@medicineha­ Twitter: CollinGall­ant

City utility and elected officials say they hope to form a better relationsh­ip with ratepayers alongside a choice to halt major decisions on the power plant until after the fall election.

One vocal opponent of a sale says the future of the utility will almost certainly become a ballot box issue.

“I don’t think candidates will have the luxury of sitting by and not having an opinion,” said Alison Van Dyke, who arranged an online petition calling on the city to maintain public ownership of the 110-year-old power company.

Hatters next go to the municipal polls in October, and Mayor Ted Clugston was quoted in a release Monday stating schedule as the main reason behind narrowing a current review to exclude potential privatizat­ion until then.

He says the electricit­y business is complex and the city will continue work to monitor trends to maintain the health of the business unit.

“However, the current council has only months left in their term and it’s evident that more time is needed to appropriat­ely contemplat­e this decision,” he stated.

Clugston, who will seek a third term next fall, did not express a direct opinion on a potential sale described in a mid-January release for utility officials.

He joined all other current councillor­s telling the News they would await to see the results of the review before stating a position.

Alan Rose, who is challengin­g Clugston for mayor, has said the city should clarify its budgeting by backing away from business units and derisk its financial position by selling the plant rather than risk it becoming obsolete.

Some sitting council members said they felt if the right offer arrived this spring or summer, they would consider approving a sale.

Coun. Phil Turnbull, the chair of the utility committee — where the review to evaluate sales potential originated — said early on he favoured outreach such as town hall meetings, but that would be difficult considerin­g the pandemic and limitation­s on crowd sizes.

This week he reiterated that elected officials should be asking difficult or even controvers­ial questions if they lead to better planning and management of the city.

“Right now we’re doing very well,” he said of the plant that made a $30-million profit in 2019. But, he added, about half that is from exports that some feel may be threatened by low-cost renewable production in the future.

“I’m hoping that (dividend) will continue, but as my father used to ask, ‘Would you bet the family farm on it?’” said Turnbull.

“We need to be very careful that we understand what’s going on in energy markets.”

A release from the city on Monday says there is no pending sale being considered and “any future possible sale would be subject to an appropriat­e consultati­on process and approval process.”

Utility officials said Monday work would continue to inform citizens about benefits and liabilitie­s of owning the large generation company.

Clugston, Turnbull and Van Dyke all agreed that should continue.

“Not everybody needs to be an energy trader,” said Van Dyke. “But people should know how their power company operates and how that affects the municipal budget.”

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