Councillors concerned about flood mitigation if EPCOR takes over drainage

City council will consider the possibility of handing $2.6 billion in drainage assets over to EPCOR after a tight 7-6 vote Tuesday, setting themselves up for a contentious debate in October.

Slim majority of councillors agree more information is better than not enough

Heavy rain caused flooding at St. Albert Trail and the Yellowhead on Tuesday afternoon. (Phil Laplante Jr./CBC News)

City council will consider the possibility of handing $2.6 billion in drainage assets over to EPCOR after a tight 7-6 vote Tuesday, setting themselves up for a contentious debate in October.

EPCOR has said it could provide a $20-million dividend if council allowed it to take over the city's drainage department, including flood mitigation rehabilitation.

Mayor Don Iveson broke the tie with his vote, and in the end the city agreed  to hire a third-party consultant at EPCOR's expense to test the company's claims and identify any extra risks or benefits to a potential deal. EPCOR will cover the $200,000 cost of the study.

EPCOR is owned by the city, and operates across Canada and the United States.

EPCOR president Stuart Lee said the subsidiary can build drainage infrastructure cheaper than the city and deliver some extra money to the city — all without the city having to relinquish ownership.

"Drainage is a very well run department of the city but we believe that we can bring some additional benefits associated with the strong capital management program that we have," Lee said.

The proposal is controversial, given EPCOR's two previous failed attempts to take over city drainage. But councillors who supported the study said there's no harm in getting more information.

"What the hell is the downside?" asked Coun. Bryan Anderson.

'The pipes belong to the people'

Coun. Scott McKeen, who also supported the study, said he would rather make the decision with the best evidence available.

Coun. Mike Nickel opposed the study. He said drainage is a core city service, and accountability should rest with council.

"The pipes belong to the people," he said.

He said he's a critic of the drainage department, but still feels the important file is best handled by staff who are directly accountable to the city.

Several councillors said they're worried about what will happen to the city's long-term flood mitigation plans if EPCOR were to take over the operations.

EPCOR president Stuart Lee says he's confident the consultant hired to study the company's proposal will support EPCOR's claims. (Laura Osman/ CBC News)

"I think creating distance between us and that decision making is very problematic," Coun. Ben Henderson said.

Coun. Michael Walters said he supported the study only to get answers to questions he has about how flood mitigation infrastructure and disasters will be handled.

"It comes down to who can update our pipes and prevent future flooding the fastest," Walters said.

The close vote sets council up for a lengthy and contentious debate when the consultant delivers the report in October.

Lee said he's confident the consultant will support EPCOR's business case for the proposed deal.

Council will hold a hearing to get public information before it decides whether or not to hand over the drainage assets to EPCOR.