Potential recreation study leads to single-tier discussion at county - Jan. 26, 2017
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
At least one Huron County councillor feels he and his peers should be discussing what they have been dancing around for some time now: single-tier government.
At Huron County Council’s Jan. 18 committee of the whole meeting, Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh Reeve Ben Van Diepenbeek chimed in on a discussion about a potential regional recreation study, saying it was time to say what was on everyone’s mind.
He said that councillors have been hinting at the concept of single-tier government with a number of proposals in recent months, but that no one was coming right out and saying it.
The discussion began with Huron East Mayor Bernie MacLellan and Bluewater Mayor Tyler Hessel raising the issue of a potential recreation study for Bluewater, Huron East and Central Huron.
The study, Hessel said, will begin with an inventory of recreation facilities and services in each municipality, such as recreation centres, parks, etc. It will then proceed, he said, to evaluate the need in each community and collect data to help councillors make more informed decisions.
With changing demographics and recreation needs, Hessel said that minor sports facilities like arenas are not as much in demand as they once were. With the aging population, it’s important to offer recreation options to older residents.
He said he’s not suggesting the closure of arenas, but partnerships between neighbours to provide services to all residents as efficiently as possible.
“The key is knowing what your neighbours have and the lifespan of those facilities,” Hessel told councillors.
With local infrastructure aging in many communities, replacement costs and the cost of running an arena are starting to get out of reach for many small municipalities.
Arena facilities that once cost municipalities a few million dollars to build and then hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain will now cost $10-$12 million to build new and millions to run and maintain with the constantly-rising hydro costs in Ontario.
He said that while studying the recreation status and needs for Bluewater, Central Huron and Huron East would be a great start, it would be ideal if all nine Huron municipalities were to come on board.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘why are schools closing?’ There are not as many children as there were,” Hessel said, adding that it’s no secret that the county is losing its young people and welcoming in older residents looking to retire in Huron County.
He said that with the cost to operate an arena in today’s climate and a failure to provide recreation options to older residents, Huron will be unable to provide either demographic with a service. If data is collected and the county can hone in on where best to spend its money and serve residents, then the county and its lower tiers will stand a chance going forward.
Howick Reeve Art Versteeg said he felt Hessel’s idea was a good one, despite the fact that such a study would stand to hurt his home municipality.
Any conceivable recreation study, he said, would come back with results that say Howick doesn’t have the tax base or user base to facilitate an arena.
He said that the rising cost of keeping facilities like arenas open when they’re not being used to their full capacity is becoming an increasingly demanding burden on taxpayers.
Van Diepenbeek agreed with Versteeg, saying that conventional wisdom says that in a city like Toronto one arena should serve every 50,000 residents with the ice being used many hours of the day.
In Huron County, he said, 10 arenas serve 60,000 people and they’re empty until 4 p.m. until hockey begins and they empty out again four to six hours later before sitting empty again for another 18 hours.
A discussion about efficiency in recreation services beyond borders, Van Diepenbeek said, would essentially be a precursor to single-tier government and the abolition of the current municipal structure.
The only way conversations like those could happen, he said, whether they be about recreation or another obvious service to amalgamate like the fire departments, would be for councillors to abandon their municipal allegiances and think of services in terms of the county.
Taking an arena or a community centre out of a town would be devastating, Van Diepenbeek conceded, but it may be the way to increase usage at a few central facilities, rather than every town having its own, underused arena.
Huron East Deputy-Mayor Joe Steffler urged council to consider arenas as community centres with ice pads attached. Communities need community centres, he said, for a number of reasons. While ice usage may not be where municipal governments want them to be, closing community centres would effectively gut communities.
No direction was given on the study or on Van Diepenbeek’s points regarding single-tier government.