Big Lake Community Assoc. given notice by Central council

Schoolhouse lease to be terminated in 90 days

CENTRAL MANITOULIN – In a majority vote of 4-3 at a meeting last Thursday, Central Manitoulin council passed a motion that the tenants of the Big Lake School House be given the 90 days-notice required to terminate the lease on the building (with the municipality) and that staff be directed to take the next steps to divest the property.

The motion was brought forward after a recommendation had been made to council by its property committee earlier in the week. The recommended motion, considered by council, had been brought forward by Councillor Angela Johnston and seconded by Councillor Rose Diebolt.

“This is one of those issues that has brought out strong feelings on both sides,” stated Mayor Richard Stephens.

“First of all, I question the legality of cancelling the lease in the winter; under Ontario guidelines, this can’t done in the winter; and on the morality side, I question why council would divest itself of the building. We have a group here Big Lake Community Association (BLCA) that wants to keep the building open, and they have pretty much paid all the bills since day one, with council paying nothing except for insurance,” said Councillor Derek Stephens.

“And some councillors have said there is another building down the road (Sandfield) and that they should use that. The Big Lake School Association has held many steak dinners and other fundraisers and donated dollars in the community. All the group wants is a little bit of money put into the building so they can get back to using it and holding fundraising events,” said Councillor Stephens. “Council seems to be unwilling to spend any money on repairs of the building. Councillors want to divest this building and one councillor said the funds that would have been spent on it should be put into the new arena in Mindemoya, which is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard on council.” 

“They (BLCA) asked the property committee and council for some work to be done on the building and the answer is ‘no, put money into Mindemoya,’ which is ridiculous,” said Councillor Stephens. 

Councillor Al Tribinevicius made a passionate plea to council, saying, “I won’t be voting in favour of the motion. I feel very strongly about this and ask that council not vote in favour of this. It doesn’t recognize the many years of effort that the community has put into the building. Not only Big Lake, but people of Silver Bay Road, etc. It’s a big community.” He noted that one-third of the tax money in the municipal coffers comes from Sandfield. 

“This building is a gem,” stated Councillor Tribinevicius. “It should not be closed or knocked down,” he said, imploring Councillors Johnston and Diebolt to reconsider the date for terminating the lease.

“Big Lake School is a living, meaningful building; it displays the names and history of the people who have lived in the community,” said Councillor Tribinevicius. “I just don’t know how one (broken) pipe could provide so much consternation. One pipe knocked over by ice on the building roof (that allowed water into the ceiling and caused the mould).”  He explained the mould is not dangerous to humans, and in a study carried out by evaluators this past October, the mould was not termed a serious issue and he feels the repairs could be even be done by volunteers.  

“And why is 90 days being given to terminate the lease?” said Councillor Tribinevicius. “And why would we consider selling it? It’s a beautiful little building. Why mess with it. Let’s have it fixed up and put back in use. Let’s give it some thought.”

“How we arrived at this point isn’t my main concern; at this moment there is plenty of blame to go around,” said Councillor Steve Shaffer. “The fact is we are where we are. When faced with these difficult and sometimes divisive issues, I feel it is important to look at our core municipal goals. These municipal goals are guided by, or should be, by the municipality’s strategic plan.”’

“Quoting from that plan, the purpose of developing a strategic plan is to have an action plan for long-term priorities. Council will use it as a guide in decision making. This plan was developed with community input and has priorities identified that will make our community a better place to live, work and visit,” said Councillor Shaffer. “At every single committee meeting, a review of our strategic plan is on the agenda, presumably to remind us and keep us focused on our municipality’s goals and objectives. Municipal infrastructure is a huge part of our municipality, with much duplication and redundance. The strategic plan recognizes this and speaks specifically to that goal, and I quote, ‘Explore the reduction of municipal buildings based on use, asset condition and level of services.”

Councillor Shaffer explained, “over the next few years, the estimated repair costs to the Big Lake School are approximately $175,000 to $200,000. An expenditure of this amount must be seriously considered as to the benefit to all ratepayers in Central Manitoulin. It’s no secret that this municipality is both blessed and cursed with many underutilized buildings. The property budget is a large part of the municipality’s overall budget. Currently, the property committee is working on a draft budget for 2022 of over $1.5 million net costs; that’s potentially a 100 percent increase over last year’s capital property budget. As such, an expenditure of nearly $200,000 on the Big Lake School needs to be seriously considered.”

“I do not believe such an expenditure on this building would be financially responsible to all ratepayers of Central Manitoulin,” said Councillor Shaffer. He said the municipality did meet with the leaseholders on several occasions. The municipality offered to completely turn over this building, at no cost, to the current leaseholders; discussed offering the leaseholders a one-time start-up contribution toward building repairs. “This offer was outright rejected.”

“I continue to support turning over this building to the leaseholder (the Big Lake Community Association). It is important that we pass the motion before us tonight, as it is the first step necessary to any future solution,” continued Councillor Shaffer. “I don’t subscribe to the argument that because we haven’t spent money on this building in the past, we can afford to spend money on it now. Financial resources are limited, priorities need to be set. If you truly believe in the strategic plan and vision for moving this municipality forward, you will support tonight’s motion regarding Big Lake School.”

Councillor Shaffer added no one on council has said the building needs to be sold. “The offer is still open to the stakeholders to take over the building. And saying that a councillor said the money not spent on this building should go to Mindemoya infrastructure is just rabble rousing.”

Councillor Johnston said, “I completely agree with everything Councillor Shaffer said about the strategic plan and it guiding council on its decisions. I want to make it very clear that no one has said anything about demolishing the building.” 

“I agree it is a lovely building,” stated Councillor Johnston. “However, the municipality has too many buildings and the majority of them are underused. And, unfortunately, Big Lake School has been neglected for years and the current situation should not have got to the point it has.” 

“And, I’m not saying the building does not have a purpose,” said Councillor Johnston. “But it should not be the municipality, but another group taking care of it.” She said the municipality has tried to have conversations with the BLCA,  but their attitude at the meetings has been adversarial. “It would be great if everyone tried to work together. There is no reason the Big Lake group didn’t push more for further meetings with the municipality and staff to provide input and ideas.”  

“We must represent the whole municipality,” said Councillor Johnston. “In order to move forward, we have to make tough decisions. I will be supporting the motion.”

Councillor Dale Scott said, “I support and agree with what Angela has said. We had made a commitment of $25,000 to repair the mould problem. But to make all the repairs necessary and remediate the mould problem, it will cost between  $100,000-$110,000 in year one. Most of the repairs have to be done immediately, which puts us in a very difficult position.”

“I don’t believe the motion means a bulldozer will come in and knock down the building or the municipality will sell off the property. There are lots of options,” said Councillor Scott. “If we can come up with a reasonable compromise with the Big Lake group, sit down at the table so a compromise and solution can be found.”

Councillor Rose Diebolt said, “my comments are going to be short and quick. Everybody has provided excellent points. My biggest concern is that I can’t see spending $200,000 on a building when it is underutilized, unless a group can take it over. I’m in favour of the motion, we have to move forward.” 

Mayor Richard Stephens said he would like council to look past the building. “It is not the building we have to look at, but the people who are involved and have a vested interest in the future of the building. When I looked at the letters that have come in the past two days, the passion and determination of people who want to see the building remain and be maintained by the community is clear.” 

“This building in Big Lake has housed articles, photographs and the history of the community and people that have lived here, their children and grandchildren,” said Mayor Stephens. “We told the Big Lake Community Association that once the last building assessment report came out from Tulloch, that we would discuss this with the group but this did not happen. This is the fault of council. I think we should set aside the motion tonight until this discussion is held and everyone has the opportunity provide input and ideas as to solutions. We should set the motion aside and deal with this on a more open basis.”

Mayor Stephens noted, “the motion on the floor is contentious. I will ask the mover and seconder of the motion if they will withdraw or amend the motion.” 

Councillor Stephens called for a recorded vote and said, “I wish we were recording council and committee meetings. The comment that was made by a councillor that money that we should spend on this building should go to the Mindemoya arena was said, and people at this meeting and our property committee Tuesday know that. 

Councillors Diebolt, Johnston, Scott and Shaffer voted in favour of the motion. Councillors Stephens, Tribinevicius and Mayor Stephens voted in opposition to the motion.

“The battle is not over,” stated Lois Keller, a member of the BLCA. “We are putting together ideas. We are very dissatisfied with what has come up at council, and the committee meeting, where the bias came up about taking money from one ward and spend it in another ward. And this after the engineer said the building is in good condition.” 

Ms. Keller said, “we will do what we have to do. Once the school building is gone, basically the village will be gone; we are doing what we are to protect the families and heritage of the area.” She noted that the old township of Sandfield makes up a good portion of the tax revenue for the municipality, now as the Sandfield ward, and “all we have gained (from the municipality is two port-a-potties, one at the end of Big Lake and the other at the dam at Sandfield, as well as a picnic table at the Sandfield dam. Our tax dollars are not being spent on our residents or community.”

“Al (Tribinevicius) is great in representing our ward,” said Ms. Keller who added, “our association has significantly helped in doubling the value of the building.”