Jordi Butler is joined by her placard-bearing, five-year-old son Braedyn in a packed council chambers Monday night. They came hoping council would support construction of a pool and second ice pad. But they left disappointed, following council’s 5-2 rejection of the $18.3 million Ma-Te-Way Park expansion project.
Lucy Hass, Renfrew Mercury
No pool and second ice pad are coming to the Town of Renfrew in the short term, and perhaps never.
With 80 people packed into council chambers Monday night, Coun. Andrew Evans’ motion to support the Ma-Te-Way Park expansion project was defeated 5-2.
“Nice retirement town we’re going to have,” exclaimed Renfrew businessman Jeff Taylor as the crowd began filing out of the chambers.
It was town council’s second council vote, since the late 1980s, that nixed community efforts to build a pool. That vote resulted in support for an arena and community hall, with plans to phase in the pool in 1992.
The biggest applause of the night was reserved for Coun. Evans, who said in his election campaign two years ago that he’d back the building of the pool and second ice pad. Evans said he had too much integrity to back down from his election promises.
But his support was far too little from a council whose members mostly felt it would be too great a financial burden for taxpayers and the town.
Mayor Bill Ringrose, who said he sat on the fence on the issue, was the only other council member to support the facility’s expansion. However, he says that doesn’t mean the expansion is dead forever.
“So much for proactive health care,” said Colleen Berry, a local marathoner and supporter of the project who lives in Admaston-Bromley.
“Perhaps putting this concept on ice for now and raising it at a more prosperous time will give new life to this region.”
That’s the general feeling of Scott Buffam, chairman of the second ice pad committee.
“As a group, we are certainly disappointed with the result,” said Buffam.
“We are encouraged, though, from the comments from Councillor Evans and the mayor, with the possibility of looking at this down the road, when fiscal opportunities may present themselves.”
As for future efforts to try to bring the project forward again, Ma-Te-Way aquatic committee chairman Leo Hall is unsure.
“I really don’t know. Our objective was to be advocates for these types of facilities, and we spent about eight years on the aquatic facility promotion.”
Hall acknowledges that elected officials have given the issue a thorough examination, “so I guess as a committee we’ll have to have a good, long think about it and determine what we do next.”
The lack of foreseeable money from the federal and provincial governments was a factor in the thinking of council members who rejected expansion at this time.
But debt load and the inevitable hike of taxes to afford an estimated $400,000 or more in operating expenses per year were the stronger arguments.
Council members Tom Anderson, Audrey Green, Jim Miller, Gail Cole and Clint McWhirter each cast no votes on Evans’ motion.
The motion indicated the expansion project would require a municipal capital expansion of about $4 million and an additional operating deficit per year of about $500,000. The same motion also indicated the current recreation centre would remain intact.
Council members rejecting the expansion included Coun. Anderson. He chaired the recreation committee that recommended terminating support for the park expansion based on several financial factors.
These factors included the absence of provincial or federal grants until at least 2014; potential donor fatigue, as evident in other community fundraising projects; the town’s need to finance a minimum of $4 million in capital funding; the future need of large capital expenditures to provides other town services in the next 30 years; and the lack of a solution for programs or replacement of the current recreation centre.
Anderson, who was Monday’s first council member to speak, said, “We may have to admit that we’re a small community that cannot be everything to everybody,” while reminding the audience that the pool and second ice pad are only two of more than 40 recommendations within the town’s master recreation plan.
He also reminded council that Renfrew’s vision statement calls for the town to provide affordable recreational activities that aim to maximize participation and contribute to a healthier community in order to achieve the greatest public good.
Anderson also said there has been a lot of rhetoric and “less-than-complete information going to the general public, particularly on Facebook,” about the project. Add it all up, there are too many financial obstacles to supporting the expansion, including 39 per cent of survey respondents who said don’t increase taxes to bring the pool.
Even if it’s only $200 more in annual taxes, Anderson said community members continue to struggle to make ends meet. “We’re all looking forward to increases in water, sewer, hydro, gas, food, and the food bank is busier than ever, and jobs are less than secure,” said Anderson.
He cited the example of how free public skating attracts big numbers, but a $2 admission keeps people away.
Anderson said the town can also attract new industry, to lighten the load of residential taxpayers, but that would be difficult given the town has one of the highest tax rates in the county.
Debt capacity was a major concern, stressed both Anderson and Reeve Green.
Coun. Jim Miller said he believed surrounding municipalities should take equal responsibility for building an expanded facility that they would also use. For example, he said, “It’s not fair that a resident at the bottom of Thomson Hill have a large tax increase and a resident at the top of the hill (in Horton Township) not have a tax increase, but have the same (recreation services).”
Considering such factors as declining youth population, the number of people behind in tax payments, and the increasing number of seniors, Miller said he could not see himself “moving forward with this project at this time,” without the support of surrounding municipalities.
SPREAD THE SUPPORT AROUND
Coun. Gail Cole, who said the expected tax increase would be 10 to 12 per cent to back the facility expansion, wondered why neighbouring municipalities of Greater Madawaska, Horton and McNab-Braeside couldn’t support the facility, given that each of those municipalities has a higher median family income than Renfrew.
The health benefits of a pool aren’t in question, said Cole.
“My concern is that more of our residents might find they are unable to afford to live in affordable Renfrew,” she said of a tax hike to pay for the expansion.
But multiple-municipality support for a regional recreational complex would be wonderful, she said. “Just think, no more disputes about user fees.”
“Here’s an idea, convince your respective councils to get off their butts and act on your wishes. We might be able to provide a sort of regional facility that would benefit the entire area.
“That would be my dream. Now back to reality … Most residents feel taxes are too high now,” added Cole, noting many roads in Renfrew are already in dire need of repairs. “There’s simply not enough money to go around. If we undertake the pool-arena complex, there might be even less left for infrastructure.”
Coun. McWhirter, who was the fifth council member to speak, said he agreed with Green’s expressed concerns about the town’s borrowing capacity.
“You cannot put yourself in position where you have no room to borrow debt, should an emergency arise,” said McWhirter.
“It bothers me that we owe $20 million, and we’re a little town of 8,000 people. I’m not even going to talk about surveys, and (potential tax hikes of) 10 and 12 per cent. Just the fact we owe $20 million, for a little town, should scare people.”
Evans used a different tone, saying, “I am in favour of this council working together to build a pool and second ice pad surface.”
The facility was also an opportunity to deliver on the town’s “long overdue commitment,” said Evans.
“I’m just asking for a little bit of leniency … I wouldn’t want to see it shelved today because we believe it’s going to be too expensive or outside of our budget,” added Evans, who referred to anticipated revenue from such activities as solar energy.
Mayor Ringrose said there was “no doubt in my mind that the community wants this” facility.
He also said the financial requirements are “imposing,” but not as bleak as they might appear, given current usable reserves of $350,000 and anticipated revenue from the Innovation Centre, solar energy and Renfrew Power Generation, in the new few years. He pointed to the example of $250,000 in profits from the Innovation Centre over the last two years.
By his own calculations, these revenues will leave taxpayers not with an 11 or 12 per cent tax increase, but closer to six per cent.
“If worse comes to worse, yes we need to have the grants, but (I think) the ratepayers will pay up to six per cent in a tax increase,” said Ringrose, noting this would represent $50 or $60 per year for the lowest tax bills.
“So I’m betwixt and between. I guess, if I were going to vote on it, I would take that chance and I would vote yes.”
His yes vote was one of two, but defeat of the motion doesn’t mean the dream of a pool and ice pad ends, suggests Ringrose.
“Does that mean it will never be reviewed again? No. Some time, probably in the next couple of years, the issue will probably come back up again,” said Ringrose.
The mayor said he’s sticking to his plans to step down after the current municipal term. But he says the next council could benefit from Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, when he suspects several new federal grants will be available.