Pembroke – A move to spend $2 million of taxpayer funds to finish the Algonquin Trail was a divisive issue at Renfrew County council last week with some mayors decrying the spending of taxpayer dollars on the project with others stating it was a necessary piece of economic and tourism infrastructure.
In the end, based on a weighted voted count, the move to allocate using reserve funds of $2 million over the next four years to finish the trail passed, but by a narrow margin. It did not get approval until councillors engaged in a lengthy debate about how the trail was to be funded, the original plan for funding and whether the matter should go to the Finance and Administration Committee first to see the long-term impact on the county finances.
“I’m concerned because it does have an effect on the long-term financial plan,” Greater Madawaska Mayor Brian Hunt said during the ZOOM meeting of council last Wednesday.
According to the County of Renfrew long-term plan, which was put in place to properly finance the assets in the county, the county is projected to have a surplus of $500,000 in 2030. The resolution brought before council last week was calling for the $2 million to come out of those same surplus funds this year and the following three years, drawing down the overall surplus.
“This would mean we would be at minus $1.5 million in 2030,” he said.
Other mayors, including Bonnechere Valley Mayor Jennifer Murphy, who chairs the Finance and Administration Committee, said it was important for the financial implications to be examined before the recommendation to allocate $2 million was done.
“I’m not against the endeavour,” she said. “We just need to look at it.”
Although she identified the trail as an important asset for the county, she said having a complete financial picture was needed.
“Even if it was an information item, it would have been nice to have a discussion (at Finance and Administration) before it got here,” she said.
A motion to send the resolution to the Finance and Administration Committee was defeated and when the final vote on the $2 million was done, it passed on a recorded vote.
The $2 million would be spread over work done from Renfrew to Cobden in 2021, Cobden to Pembroke in 2022, Petawawa to Chalk River in 2023 and Chalk River to the border of the county in 2024. According to the Development and Property Committee, which recommended the expenditure, since the purchase of the CP rail corridor in 2016 the county and other groups – including municipalities, trail groups and the provincial and federal governments – have completed 65 kilometres with stone dust and opened another 48 kilometres without stone dust. Approximately 110 kilometres remain closed and 47 kilometres are open but require the addition of stone dust to make the trail usable. Staff estimated the total cost as $4,053,073, which includes savings of $104,000 from the 2021 approved budget, $255,699 from the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP) Resilience Fund and $890,000 from the aggregate the Ministry of Transportation has gifted the county. The 100,000 tonnes of aggregate is being delivered to the Chalk River and Deux-Rivieres sites. Petawawa Mayor Bob Sweet, who chairs the Development and Property Committee and has been a long-time advocate of the trail and instigator of the purchase of the abandoned rail corridor, said not taking advantage of the roughly $1 million in aggregate sitting to be moved onto the trail does not make sense.
“The more you drag this out the less money you have for this trail,” he said.
The mayor admitted when the trail was first envisioned there was a commitment it would not cost money from county coffers but would be funded through grants and community partnerships.
“Ten years ago, the intention was for no levy to go into the trail,” he admitted.
However, the necessity of completing the trail is important to economic development. He said right now the trail is only partially usable for ATVs.
“They come as far as Renfrew and turn around,” he said.
The trail has a $5 million impact on the local economy from both ATVs and snowmobiles, he added.
Mayor Sweet said this was a county-wide issue.
“Economic development comes in many forms and the Algonquin Trail is one of them,” he said. “The Algonquin Trail is not only for those along the trail.”
Admaston/Bromley Mayor Michael Donohue noted the county is already putting money into the trail and he questioned if the $2 million is additional funds.
“The Algonquin Trail has already been allocated a quarter of a million per year,” he said, adding the information in the outset was the levy was not to be used for this.
Whether “it is $2 million or $27 million” it was clear the tax dollars from county ratepayers were not to go for the capital upgrade of the trail, he said.
There are financial and economic benefits to the trail, Mayor Donohue admitted. However, he repeatedly questioned spending taxpayer funds for the additional $2 million.
“Unless this was seen through rose-coloured glasses, it seems astonishing to me we are finding having a reliance on grants and outside funding agencies was critical to this thing coming to fruition,” he said.
Horton Mayor David Bennett said many municipalities have extra pressures which need help. He pointed out if there are tax dollars being spent, other areas could also be asking for assistance.
“I don’t see it coming out of working capital reserve because every municipality has issues we will possibly need as lower-tier municipalities,” he said.
Renfrew Reeve Peter Emon said the $2 million was a good solution to finish the trail. He said using the aggregate from the Ministry of Transportation and encouraging people to use the trail is a good move. Having an uninterrupted trail is key, he added.
“We are concerned the public might be losing interest in using it,” he said.
Having an investment now so the trail can be completed “in the foreseeable future” for all users makes sense, he said. Otherwise, it might be 10 or 12 years, or maybe up to 20 years to finish it.
Following the extensive discussion, the motion to support the development of the Algonquin Trail to a maximum of $2 million was approved with the funds taken from reserves. As well, staff will continue to seek other grant opportunities.
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader