At the budget meeting on Tuesday night, Feb. 17, Cranbrook city council voted to remove a plan to borrow $500,000 to retrofit Firehall No. 1. The item was a part of the schedule of capital expenditures.
When the item of business came up Mayor Lee Pratt asked that the item be removed.
The funds were planned to be used to repair the building so that it could be used in the future.
CAO Wayne Staudt explained that the $500,000 was added to the five year plan a few years ago.
“At that time, whether it was going to be the firehall building, or some other building, we weren’t quite sure at the time when we put it into the budget,” Staudt said. He added that it was meant to be there as potential matching funds to construct an arts council building.
“Whether that was to buy a new building, whether that was to buy a building downtown and renovate it or whether that was going to be the firehall — there was no intention at that time when it went in,” Staudt said. “As the years evolved to where we are today it started to drift towards that would be money that would be used possibly to help renovate the cost of the firehall.”
He noted that a number of years ago the trades manager came up with a rough estimate on the cost of the renovations, which came in at about $1.5 million.
Coun. Danielle Cardozo had concerns. She noted that at the prior budget meeting on Feb. 11, council asked city staff to come back with recommendations on what to do with the firehall.
“So I find it really difficult to make a decision on this $500,000 without that recommendation,” Cardozo said.
Pratt noted that what they sent back to staff was to look at the Cranbrook and District Arts Council presentation.
“We were going to decide on that, we hadn’t talked about the borrowing of the $500,000,” he said.
Staudt said the two items were separate.
“What staff is reviewing is the business plan that was presented to us from the arts council to come up with whether that is a viable business plan,” Staudt said. “And whether or not council wants to, based on that business plan, give the arts council exclusive use of the firehall — whether we give them use through a lease agreement or we just give them the building — that’s what staff is currently reviewing.”
Staudt noted that the other question being asked is: “On top of giving them the building, do you also want to borrow $500,000 to help them or anybody renovate the building?”
Coun. Wes Graham wasted no time in putting forward a motion to remove the item.
Coun. Ron Popoff was on the same page as Coun. Cardozo.
“It does tie into what is the future expected use of the firehall in relations to the arts council,” Popoff said. “I believe there is also going to be recommendation coming back from staff on what is the ultimate recommendation for the use of Firehall No. 1?”
Popoff said those recommendations could be anything from locking the building down and making it safe and secure for a future time, to leasing it out to a non-profit or for-profit organization, to selling it.
Popoff said he wanted to find out what the cost of at least making the building safe and secure would be.
Coun. Tom Shypitka said his worry is that the $500,000 is just the “tip-of-the-iceberg” in the expense to get the firehall to where it needs to be.
“I’m afraid that we’re going to get ourselves deep in something that we’re not going to be able to get out of down the road,” he said.
Staudt also pointed out that the firehall’s roof is fine and is only a few years old, it is the trusses that need to be shored up.
“I don’t expect that will be a big bill,” Staudt said. “We should do some minor things over there to correct some of the things. It might be $20,000 or $30,000.”
Graham said he is not in favour of borrowing. He said if they need to find the money they could find it by way of “efficiencies.”
“I’m definitely not in favour of borrowing,” he said, adding he’d sooner see council tax for it.
Pratt said the reason he is not in favour of borrowing the $500,000 is that he believes council should not be in the real estate business.
“Personally I can’t justify borrowing $500,000 on a building to do whatever we’re going to do with it — and we don’t even know what we’re going to do with it,” Pratt said. “We have a number of situations that the taxpayers are paying every year to maintain them.”
Pratt said he doesn’t believe the arts council will be able to support itself in that building.
“Down the road they’re going to be coming to us with their hand out,” he said. “So that’s the reason I’m against borrowing the money.”
He said staff may come back and recommend that council entertain an agreement with the arts council to sell it, or rather to just sit on the building.
Popoff wanted clarification that council could look at borrowing in the future if need be.
“If a recommendation comes back looking viable and attractive we certainly have that option at that time,” Pratt said.
Coun. Isaac Hockley said he sees the building as a liability for the city.
“I’m a photographer, I do want to support the arts, but I think going down the road in a couple years… that this would end up hurting them rather than doing any good for them,” Hockley said. “They come up with a number of $500,000. You look at the business plan that says, like you say mayor, next year it’s going to be a couple hundred thousand dollars more. Then the year after that it could be $300,000 to 500,000 again.”
Cardozo said her concern isn’t with the arts council, but rather with the building itself, as it does have heritage status and the city is required to keep it to a certain standard. She asked whether there was money somewhere else to get the building to that standard, as opposed to borrowing.
“But if the recommendation is to keep the building, it’s better to fix it sooner than later, because if the trusses go that’s going to cost more money in the long run,” Cardozo said. “It is a city asset. It is a liability.”