Please take us through your journey to becoming the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of Birch Hills County.
I come from a rural area in Southwestern Ontario but left at 17 to join the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) as a Finance Clerk. I stayed in the CAF for 21 years, moving six times during my career, not including a six-month peacekeeping tour in Cyprus in 1976-77. I took advantage of an opportunity for an early retirement when the CAF was downsizing in 1992, and I had the opportunity to switch to the public service and carry on in a civilian capacity as the individual responsible for cost recoveries for British Army Training at CFB Suffield in Southern Alberta, a position I was posted to in 1989. I stayed on there for an additional six years and left the Department of National Defence in 1998 to become the Finance Officer for the Cypress View Foundation (CVF) in Medicine Hat.
During my seven years at CVF, I participated in the Alberta Senior Citizen’s Housing Authority’s Lodge Manager’s program at Red Deer College with a goal of becoming a lodge manager or executive director in that industry.
In 2005, after 16 years in Medicine Hat, my wanderlust got the better of me, and I applied for, and was offered the position of Treasurer in the Town of Faro in the Yukon. The CAO that recruited me surprised me nine months into my Yukon expedition by announcing that he would be leaving to take on a similar position in the Town of High Prairie, and I was faced with the decision to either wait and see who Town Council would hire as his replacement, or take a chance and throw my hat in the ring. Long story short, Council took a chance on me, and so my apprenticeship began.
Larry Baran, the CAO that hired me in Faro, began trying to recruit me for the Treasurer’s position in High Prairie shortly after arriving there, and finally succeeded in coaxing me back south 2 ½ years later when changes in my family circumstances made the journey and change a wise choice. Larry left me again nine months later, and I stayed in High Prairie for an additional nine months.
Fast forward six years, and after having worked in communities as far south as Oyen, Alberta and north as Enterprise in the NWT, I became aware of the CAO position in Birch Hills County. I submitted an application and was rewarded when Council took a chance on me.
What will you remember most when you look back to your time at Birch Hills County?
What I will remember most when I look back on my time in the County are the people. The commitment of staff and Council to make the County a better place for everyone, the cooperation between the G5 partners to provide services that could not have been provided without their joint efforts, and the quality of people here looking to raise their families and improving the life of not only their families but those of their neighbours as well.
What is the most satisfying part in being a CAO?
Seeing your team come together and employees reach their potential for the overall betterment of the organization.
What were some of the major accomplishments achieved by the County while you were the CAO?
It’s easy to point out the G5 partnership successes, including the Central Peace Health Complex already completed and the amazing senior’s housing facility that will be coming soon through our partnership with the Grande Spirit Foundation. The more important accomplishments revolve around working with staff and Council and being able to survive shrinking property assessments and tax revenues to keep things going.
The County recently revealed a budget shortfall of more than $700,000. What do you think should be done to position the County to climb out of that big financial hole.
Birch Hills County is facing major challenges going forward. We lost assessable assets and tax revenues when:
- Trans Canada abandoned pipelines.
- We have companies ignoring their tax obligations (and I want to state that CNRL is not one of them).
- We have a hard time attracting new businesses into the County, and when we do, we are faced by the NIMBY’s (not in my back yard) of the world that either refuse to look into the opportunity, ignore the science behind projects, or look for personal gain before agreeing to sign on.
The County has to be able to grow, or it will be faced with either amalgamating with a neighbouring municipality, or become Special Area 5 under the control of the province.
How has the CAO role taught you about navigating bureaucracy at the provincial level?
The UCP (United Conservative Party) has one thing right – they need to eliminate red tape when it gets in the way of growth and getting the job done. But they also need to enact rules and legislation to keep municipalities afloat. When home, business, or land owners don’t pay their property taxes, rules are in place for municipalities to get their taxes and not have to offload on other taxpayers. If oil and gas companies don’t pay their taxes, municipalities need to have options, including freezing operating licences.
And the province needs to take a leadership role, not download costs (policing, roads and bridges) on municipalities, shirk its own tax (payment in lieu of taxes) payments, or place responsibility on municipalities for unpopular decisions.
Yes, we can applaud provincial actions during the current COVID-19 crisis; but the role of the province goes much further than this, and the bottom line is that there is only one tax payer.
Tell us what your plans are in retirement.
The first thing I need to do is spend time with the woman that has stood by my side since we were married 46 years ago – my wife Joan. The next priority is to spend more time with my grandchildren. But that is going to have to wait until the COVID-19 situation subsides.
Joan and I have a camper set up down in Joussard (within Big Lakes County), and we hope to be able to spend more time there and on the lake. That, too, is on hold for the time being. The biggest decision we will need to make is where to call home, as we own residences in Eaglesham and in High Prairie. Both have their merits and drawbacks, and we have made friends in both places.
The last item to consider is whether I completely hang up my hat and put my feet up, or if I take on consulting work to fill interim vacancies for which I have already received calls. After working for 48 years without a break, there is no rush to do so, but that could change once Joan has to put up with me underfoot 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.