Jeff Lewis speaks with Melissa Blake, the mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, about the mood and state of Fort McMurray.
What's the mood in Fort McMurray?
I think it would be different from what people commonly think. Because we're at the epicentre of it all, there's a very different effect that happens here. These are long-play projects, and that means that even when the cyclical nature of oil takes us into the unhappy territory that we're in right now, these companies just can't pull up stakes and leave.
What it means is we see our population, who are permanent residents, have typically secured the permanent operations-type jobs. And so in the community we would suffer probably more on the contractor side. But it's really the ones that are hosting the fly-in-fly-out or guest workers that come to participate in this that are likely to feel the pinch a whole lot more.
Fort McMurray has struggled to keep up with growth as oil-sands production boomed. Where do things stand today?
We're in better shape when it comes to the housing scenario. We do have perpetual issues, I suppose, with the lack of services that we're able to provide to our rural areas. But we've committed to providing pressurized water and waste-water treatment into our southern hamlets, in particular, as well as taking care of our communities in the north. And this is really where we're feeling that even though the economic slowdown may have an effect, we still have obligations that we'd like to uphold.
Does the itinerant work force in the oil sands make that harder?
It really does have an effect … We are not just the city of Fort McMurray, but we are the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which is 64,000 square kilometres in size. And inside that footprint is the actual commodity being the oil sands. And some of the folks that are working will be housed in the north, some will be in the south. A lot could be in Fort McMurray. And it's the could-bes that we're most interested in. When they come, they don't bring doctors, they don't bring spouses, [and] they don't bring their families.
It's not a pleasant thing. There's no residency here, and so we're not projecting it as part of our growth scenario. We don't get any revenues that would come normally through the municipal function, which is that home assessed value. On the upside, when they want to eat, they come into the community to our restaurants and our lounges. It's a very different scenario. It's just not a common way of living for most people.
Your council has debated a tax on itinerant workers. How would it work?
The levy makes sense. And when I say that, there are impacts that occur. So if they're coming into town for any purpose, then there's more traffic on the roads and we're providing more policing services to make sure people aren't speeding … and these are real expenses that are covered by the folks that are here.
We do take a significant portion of our revenues from our industry and that means by and large we're covering off a lot of these expenditures through the mill rates that we've assessed on the industry, and it covers 90 per cent of our budget … We don't want to hurt our industry any more than the already high assessed rates that they have, but the impacts that we're bearing, we'd like to have a more direct correlation with some of the folks that are here that just are not contributing in any other way.
How concerned are you about the sharp drop in oil prices?
I'm watchful. It's not worry. We've had some pretty restricted times in the past that we've come through, and I believe that from the perspective of this being a global commodity, with global demand, at some point in time it will tell us a different story. But right now, it is what it is, and we've got to make sure that we're as efficient as we can be through that period.