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Ma-Me-O Beach could face dissolution in wake of $5M debt from sewage project

The Summer Village of Ma-Me-O Beach, Alta., is undergoing a viability review after a failed wastewater system that cost the municipality more than $5 million.

Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver initiated the viability review in December.

The process will look at whether the community — 100 kilometres southwest of Edmonton on the southeast shore of Pigeon Lake — is able to survive on its own or should be dissolved, becoming a hamlet in the County of Wetaskiwin.

Residents will vote on the issue in February 2025, according to information from the province.

Mayor Christine Holmes, who was elected in 2021, said dissolution could benefit the summer village and the county but it wouldn’t be easy.

“It’s hard to imagine us losing our identity and kind of our unique culture,” Holmes told CBC’s Edmonton AM on Wednesday. 

But she said dissolution might not be avoidable as the village is “financially paralyzed.”

“It’s hard to do any projects, it’s hard to do any improvements, infrastructure improvements, even to just naturally grow as a community.”

LISTEN | Ma-Me-O Beach undergoing a provincial viability review

Edmonton AM7:09Ma-Me-O Beach is fighting to stay alive

The Department of Municipal Affairs is assessing Ma-Me-O Beach’s viability, and whether it should be dissolved into the County of Wetaskiwin. Christine Holmes is the mayor of Ma-Me-O Beach.

Holmes said the wastewater project, completed by PME Inc. in late 2017 at a cost of nearly $3 million, was a contentious issue among residents from the start.

Problems began within a year as sewage leaks, including leaks of toilet waste, were discovered multiple times. 

Issues were discovered with the electrical heat trace system, which was supposed to prevent the pipes from freezing in winter.

The contractor was forced to make repairs but the system continued to fail. 

In February 2020 the village went into arbitration with the contractor after PME refused to do more work and asked to be paid for repair work previously done.

According to an arbitration decision, the project was “plagued by a failed design, poor oversight and allegations of shoddy workmanship.”

In March 2023 the arbitrator ruled against Ma-Me-O Beach, awarding the contractor damages and dismissing the village’s counterclaim.

In June the wastewater project was shuttered. Residents went back to using a septic tank system.

Holmes said the cost of repairs, legal costs and the arbitrator’s award have left the village with $5.35 million of debt.

In early March, around 279 residents and property owners received letters informing them that they were on the hook for anywhere between $19,000 to $21,000 to help pay off the debt.

Miles Jackson, a long-time resident of the village who has been vocally against the project from the beginning, said he was not surprised. 

“Nobody is very happy because only 10 per cent of the people here supported the sewer system and yet it was rammed through in spite of everybody’s objections,” Jackson said. 

Jackson said residents opposed to the project reached out to the province to intervene but were met with silence. 

“We were ignored by every level of government,” he said.

The viability review will include an infrastructure audit. If the summer village is dissolved, the County of Wetaskiwin could apply for funding to integrate the village’s governance, administration and legislation.

The review will not relieve the residents of their debt even after dissolution, according to the province, Holmes said. 

Property owners can vote for one of three scenarios: either pay the lump sum, adopt a long-term debt-repayment plan for the next 20 to 25 years, or pay $10,000 this year and then $9,000 plus accrued interest next year, according to Holmes.

Results of the viability review report will be available in January 2025. The following month, residents will vote on whether Ma-Me-O Beach should remain a summer village or become a hamlet in the county.

The viability review includes an online survey, which closes on Monday.

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