Bill Hutchinson, speaking for a group of citizens opposed to the borrowing of up to $6.1 million for a new fire hall, told Creston Town Council on October 24 that its proposal is needlessly expensive.
Hutchinson, formerly what is known today as the town manager and, previous to that, Creston’s public works superintendent, urged Council to delay the referendum date and to find ways of reducing project costs.
Describing the group he represents as the “committee for an affordable fire hall,” he said, “We are not anti-firefighters or a new fire hall. We are against higher taxes. Secondly, we are against the proposed location next to Extra Foods. We propose that the referendum be delayed to the 2018 (municipal) election.”
Holding the referendum in conjunction with the election, he said, would save the cost of a referendum. He also said that the proposed December 9th referendum date is unfair to snowbirds, many of which have already gone south for the winter.
Characterizing the $6.1 million figure as “huge cost”, he said the project is too extravagant for a town with an average of household salary “of around $50,000” adding that utility rates have also risen significantly in recent years.
Commercial and industrial property owners have not been told what to expect in the way of a municipal tax increase if the referendum is passed, he said.
Objecting to the Cook Street location, which would require the purchase back of property sold to Extra Foods’ owner Loblaw Companies Limited, saying that property adjacent to the RCMP detachment was intended to accommodate a fire hall and ambulance service. Building on Cook Street would result in a loss of commercial property taxes, he said.
“We get a better decision if we postpone it (the referendum) to the election,” Hutchinson said.
Another Creston resident, Sam Parsons, also spoke, describing himself as a member of the group but having independent views as well.
He said he was appalled that the group had been “unfairly labeled as non-supporters of firefighters. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
Parsons described a fire hall as a place for firefighters to “start their task and clean up once they are finished.” A new facility, he said, “does not have to be a leading edge, state of the art fire hall.”
In his view, he said, “there is room to cut costs,” and that a conference room is unnecessary because there are other such spaces already available in town. The proposed design also includes other unneeded rooms and offices, he said.
By cutting back on the extent of the project, Parsons said, a much lower cost can be achieved, at which point, “I don’t think you will have any problem getting it passed.”
People attending the meeting had been given information packages prepared by Town staff, but Mayor Ron Toyota also made a statement before closing the delegation portion of the meeting.
“This is a borrowing referendum,” he said. The design presented is not a final plan. “All of that (design) can be worked out with your input.”
He referred to the borrowing referendum that paved the way for the addition of an aquatic centre to the Community Complex. Grants were applied for and received only once the final design was completed, and they contributed to what amounted to an upgrade of the entire facility, including a new roof. Grants, also the subject of discussion at the end of the meeting, cannot be applied for until a design is completed and the balance of funding is in place to complete the project, he said.
Snowbirds, Toyota said, are not being shut out of the referendum. The 2014 municipal election was the first in the province that allowed for mail-in ballots, and that option will be available for the December referendum.
He referred those in attendance to the information package, which outlined the added costs and detriments of using the lot beside the police station, adding that the site was not designated in the official community plan at the time.
Holding the referendum separately from an election allows voters to focus on the details of a complex issue, he said. Countering the notion that citizens haven’t had enough time or information to make an informed decision, Toyota outlined the process of public consultation, which began in September of 2016 and included four days of open houses, a site-selection poll, numerous ads, stories and columns in the Advance and I Love Creston and information on the Town web site.
“In a general election the campaign period is 29 days,” he said. On the fire hall issue, he said, the public discussion has been open for more than a year.
“There is more time to make a decision on this referendum than there is for an election.”
“We do not believe this (design) is pie in the sky,” he said. “We cannot go out and ask for grants until we have a detailed plan. This is a 50-year-plus building. We want to get it right and we want to build it properly.”