Barry’s Bay -- Mayor Kim Love and Madawaska Valley Township council met here last week to once again wring their collective hands as they grappled with one tough financial nut, 40 years in the making.
In an era where they recently gave up trying to find money to continue financing doctor recruitment, council is now looking at the grim possibility of watching prosperity pass it by in the coming years.
Earlier in the week, it was announced Renfrew County had been chosen to host the 2022 Ontario Winter Games. That means big bucks for MV Township businesses and an opportunity for local ratepayers to see nationally-ranked athletes. Indeed, the Winter Games’ organizing committee had already visited Barry’s Bay to check out the ice pad at the Paul J. Yakabuski Community Centre to see if it might be up to scratch for the Game’s speed-skating competition.
That’s the good news.
The bad news: the community centre is a shadow of its former self. At minimum, it needs an emergency $1.46 million make-over to bring it up to snuff, if not avoid another carbon monoxide poisoning incident as happened there last winter. Financially, the facility has been operating at a loss for years. This year, for instance, its upkeep is expected to cost $663,460, nearly 65 per cent over the previous year when it cost $402,204 to operate in 2019. Compare that with the $124,300 revenue it is expected to generate this year, an optimistic assumption, given that the COVID pandemic would only seem to have forced a slight drop from the $127,935 in revenue the facility earned in 2019.
Worse – all the ‘free’ lottery money that built that ice surface 40 years ago is nowhere to be found. But that’s not even the half of it:
“It is a fact,” said Mayor Love, “that [past] councils have not put away sufficient money to be able to renovate this facility 40 years into its life where, at this point, it is ‘done.’ And we’re 40 years in, and we just don’t have the money.”
Not that the mayor has not tried to pan-handle her way through countless federal and provincial granting agencies, but to no avail. Every available government grant that MV Township has gone after so far this year has ended in rejection, if not gnashing of teeth. To put it bluntly, there’s no ‘free’ money out there to be had.
Councillor Ernie Peplinski put it succinctly.
“We’re in a whole different world today with this COVID,” he said. “We don’t know what else is coming…the other levels of government have over-extended themselves, and that money can only come from one place and that’s the taxpayer. And there’s only one taxpayer.”
Which leaves local taxpayers potentially on the hook for a 2.5 per cent tax increase in the township next year, that is if the current council continues to inch towards taking out a $1.46 million loan to pay for that new ice-pad and ancillary repairs next year. Last Wednesday, all but Councillor Peplinski voted in favour of spending $144,000 to prepare engineering documents needed to begin tendering for the $1.46 million make-over.
It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea, except the demographics in the township have also changed dramatically since the Paul J. Yakabuski Community Centre first opened in 1980. Instead of countless young families with hundreds of young figure skaters and hockey players, now MV township, thanks to being one of the last small communities in Ontario with its own hospital, has turned into a Mecca for retired people not much interested in body-checks or penalty boxes. As last year’s public strategic planning meeting told council in spades, what the township ratepayers really want now is a new recreational facility geared for seniors.
So, council finds itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. No surprise then last Wednesday when it decided to put that $1.46 million loan decision down the road to the end of February. By then, many are hoping against hope that somebody – possibly Paul J. Yakabuski’s strapping young son, John, now a provincial cabinet minister -- will throw them a Hail-Mary pass. Possibly, by helping them find some new provincial or federal grant money somewhere, anywhere.
Or, maybe, the mayor and her four MV Township councillors will simply do what a lot of township folks will be doing this coming weekend -- spending a few bucks down at the local gas station on Lotto 649 tickets in hopes of winning a cool million or two. Now that’s prosperity!
Barry Conway, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader