Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Building Fort McMurray: Divisive politics don't add up

Those of you who know me know that I wear my hometown of Fort McMurray on my sleeve. Although I now live in Edmonton, I maintain a keen interest in the affairs of Fort McMurray. The success of Fort McMurray and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is, I firmly believe, vital to our continued prosperity as a province.

If you follow my non-Albertatory account on Twitter, you'll know that I tweet regularly on McMurray and oilsands issues. And you'll also know that I often find myself getting into lengthy exchanges with now-former Wood Buffalo Regional Councillor John Vyboh.

With the exception of the Montreal Canadiens, John and I don't see eye-to-eye on much of anything. I campaigned for/supported candidates he was running against in the provincial elections of 1997 and 2001 (when he ran for MLA as a Liberal, and lost both times), and the municipal elections of 1998 and 2010 (when he ran for Mayor, and lost both times). Needless to say, we're usually on opposite sides of any debate.

Yesterday, Premier Ed Stelmach and half of the Alberta cabinet were in Fort McMurray to talk to a variety of local stakeholders and the public as part of the ongoing cabinet tour. I firmly believe that Premier Stelmach has, in terms of support for Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo region, been the best Premier since Peter Lougheed.

Vyboh was tweeting throughout the day about how he was disappointed and wanted to see more action from the provincial government. This pattern of criticism towards the provincial and municipal governments, incidentally, has become fairly regular since his most recent election defeat.

I challenged his assertion that Fort McMurray and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) have been constantly short-changed by the provincial government when compared with the amount of economic output in the region. During my time working in the Alberta Legislature, I was always impressed at the level of interest in Fort McMurray expressed by PC MLAs from across the province. Even though I was but a lowly communications staffer, I was always ready to entertain discussions on McMurray issues with my colleagues and did so regularly. Based on these experiences I absolutely believe that, contrary to spin from some disgruntled individuals, this Premier and his caucus are more committed to Fort McMurray and the region than any government in a generation.

That said, an opinion alone does not a compelling case make. I promised to dig up some numbers to back up my opinion, and was quite interested by what I found.

I should note that there are some difficulties in identifying with pinpoint accuracy the total amount of revenue that a particular region generates. I'm not an accountant, nor do I have gobs of time to unearth every piece of relevant data. So I build my case with the biggest ticket items when it comes to revenues and spending to get a general idea what's really going on with respect to provincial investment in Northeastern Alberta.

Revenues are represented by the amount the Government of Alberta collects in oilsands royalties (not region-specific, but the bulk of oilsands production occurs in the RMWB). Since 2006, provincial coffers have been boosted by oilsands royalties to the tune of $11.462 billion.

Spending includes operating grants to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the two local school boards, Keyano College, and the Northern Lights Regional Health Authority (now part of AHS). I should note that I don't have specific health grants to the Wood Buffalo region for 2009-10 since I couldn't find it on AHS' website, so I've allocated the same amount of funding from the previous year to make a rough calculation. Since 2006-07, operating grants to the 5 largest entities in Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo total close to $1.698 billion.

Spending also includes major capital projects like new schools, health facility upgrades, new bridges, affordable housing units, sewer upgrades, and the ongoing twinning of Highway 63. Those projects total almost $2.422 billion.

Finally, spending includes grants from programs like Community Spirit, MCFP, CFEP, and CIP. That comes to roughly $7.4 million.

All these spending numbers total $4,126,915,000, while the oilsands royalties collected by the province total $11,462,000,000. So roughly 36% of what the province collects in oilsands royalties are returned to the Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo region.

Now some would consider that a short-changing, but I disagree. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, at an estimated 103,000 residents, represents 2.76% of Alberta's population. And yet it receives about 36% of the value of oilsands royalties back from the province.

I know that oilsands royalties aren't the only source of revenue for the Alberta Government, but royalties from all energy sectors together do provide a sizeable chunk of the government dime. The royalties collected from all sectors from 2006-07 to 2009-10 total $41,896,100,000. Divide that by the $4,126,915,000 in previously mentioned spending and you're look at just under 10% of royalty dollars collected across Alberta being directed to a region with less than 3% of the population. I'd say that's a ratio that shows this government has a solid commitment to investing in the Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo region.

There was another set of numbers I stumbled upon that I also thought painted a more accurate picture than Vyboh and other boo-birds are trying to paint. Alberta Finance and Enterprise produces something called the Blue Book. Within it, I was able to find how much the Government of Alberta transferred in grants and operating funds to the major entities I listed above. I searched within this data for the fiscal year 2009-10 to see how much the government transferred in grants and operating funds (not capital projects) to the largest municipalities in the province. I thought this would be useful because it would likely help prove my point that the provincial government is indeed paying special attention to the needs of Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo and funding accordingly.

Here's what the province transferred to the following municipalities in 2009-10:

City of Calgary: $483,301,069
City of Edmonton: $513,718,734
City of Grande Prairie: $30,993,482
City of Lethbridge: $50,533,354
City of Medicine Hat: $38,801,180
City of Red Deer: $51,955,422
Strathcona County: $37,450,977
Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: $178,993,103

And here's what that works out to on a per capita basis:

City of Calgary: $451.04
City of Edmonton: $656.56
City of Grande Prairie: $617.07
City of Lethbridge: $583.13
City of Medicine Hat: $635.08
City of Red Deer: $576.74
Strathcona County: $453.89
Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo: $1,732.18

I don't mean to start a war between municipalities on how much they're getting from the province here - I think we all understand the economic benefit for the entire province that is generated by the Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo region and, I hope, appreciate why the province has been giving it extra financial attention.

Part of the reason behind wanting to dispel the spin that Vyboh and others of his mindset have been presenting is because of what is expected to be his next political move. As I mentioned above, Vyboh has twice been an Alberta Liberal candidate in Fort McMurray and has long been identified as a federal Liberal supporter. During the last municipal election in the RMWB, though, a number of supporters of the local MLA threw their support behind Vyboh's bid for Mayor. Although they were political foes in two elections (three if you count the 1998 municipal race), they came together against a common enemy: RMWB Mayor Melissa Blake.

Mayor Blake, to her credit, doesn't play the politics of division. I have always found her to be proactive and well-respected leader who is able to build positive relationships with stakeholders and other levels of government to deliver results for her region. Voters in RMWB clearly agree, returning her to the Mayor's chair with over 73% of the vote. Vyboh's politics of division were soundly rejected with only 22% support and the concurrent defeat of his ally from the previous Council, Mila Byron.

Vyboh is now turning his attention to provincial politics and is expected to seek the Wildrose Alliance nomination to serve as running mate to local MLA Guy Boutilier in the new Fort McMurray-area constituency. This convenient ideological shift is opportunistic, if not laughable. But I also think it is doomed to fail. RMWB voters have shown that they are more interested in the new generation of leadership growing in their community. One that builds relationships and works collaboratively to further the community's interests rather than personal agendas. And, as illustrated above, those kinds of positive relationships are greatly benefiting the citizens of the RMWB.

I've asserted that, contrary to what Vyboh and his boosters are spinning, that the provincial government CLEARLY sees the need for increased investment in the Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo region. Although no amount of provincial investment and attention will be enough for some who are either trying to win a seat in the Alberta Legislature or hang on to the one they already hold, I think the numbers speak for themselves.

Fort McMurray and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo have done very well by Premier Ed Stelmach and his government. I hope the next Premier will continue to show the same leadership for my beloved hometown.


  1. Hey Blake, a great post.

    You did neglect to point out that the entire Federal Liberal Association in Fort McMurray supported and volunteered for Melissa Blake's campaign. Some candidates are better then others.

    Oh, and John Vyboh is not a member of the Federal Liberals in this riding.

    All the best,

  2. Thanks Kyle,

    I'm obviously not too familiar with the membership of the Fort McMurray FLA, but certainly doesn't surprise me that Melissa had such a broad range of support from across the spectrum.

    I guess its not surprising that Vyboh doesn't have a current FedLib membership. His history and clear personal Liberal ideologies probably don't sit very well with his new friends in the Wildrose Alliance. I'm sure he'll have support from the Trudeaumania crowd in the WAP locked up, though.

    Glad you enjoyed the post - please share with friends in YMM!

  3. He was talking about how the Gov. is making all these promises but never acts on it