Council balks at $12,000 Big Lake Schoolhouse repair assessment

A public plea from the Big Lake Community Centre Association to Central Manitoulin council is posted within sight of the historic Big Lake Schoolhouse.

CENTRAL MANITOULIN – A recommendation from the municipal property committee aimed at spending $12,000 to assess the damage caused to the Big Lake Schoolhouse due to ice buildup on the roof of an addition was brought before council, but received a rocky reception despite support from some councillors.

The motion to allocate the funds was moved by Councillor Derek Stephens and seconded by Councillor Al Tribinevicius.

“I understand it is an emotional issue for all of us,” began Councillor Rose Diebolt in opening the debate. She went on to note that there is another community centre building within a 10-minute drive that is both newer and ready to welcome the Big Lake group, going on to question whether spending $12,000 on the Big Lake Schoolhouse was a wise allocation of funds given the unknown cost of repairs and the lack of financial information forthcoming from the Big Lake organization. “I can’t support this motion without knowing their ability to cover future costs. I have not heard concrete plans to cover costs.”

Councillor Stephens pointed out that the Big Lake Schoolhouse building is well-used, or was before the advent of COVID, and that the building is really the only focal point for the Big Lake community. He put forward that spending the requested money would give council a solid idea as to what may be involved in preserving a municipal asset. “I don’t think we should write that building off just yet,” he said.

Councillor Tribinevicius agreed, noting that the structure is a community building.

Councillor Dale Scott agreed with Councillor Diebolt, however. He noted that when he was in business, he would anticipate spending the money needed for repairs should he spend $12,000 to find out what those repairs were. He suggested that spending the money to assess what was needed would logically lead to the municipality being obligated to move forward with those repairs.

Councillor Scott said he failed to understand why the municipality could not convince a few local contractors to examine the building and provide a ballpark figure before going a more formal route. “Let’s get a rough idea before we spend $12,000,” he said.

Councillor Tribinevicius pointed out that the property owners in Big Lake pay taxes too, noting that the municipality inherited five community halls when they amalgamated into Central Manitoulin. He questioned whether a de-amalgamation process might be warranted. “Just a thought, just a thought,” he said.

Mayor Richard Stephens noted that the pandemic has made it extremely challenging for small community groups to raise funds. “That makes it difficult to assess the usefulness of building,” he said. “We have to support the community.”

Councillor Steve Shaffer said he had gone back and forth on the issue. He noted that before he entered municipal politics, he was under the understanding that the municipality had too many buildings in its portfolio. “There is too much infrastructure duplication,” he said, referencing the nearby community centre in Evansville.

Councillor Tribinevicius noted that the Big Lake organization has spent considerable amount of money in expanding facilities at the schoolhouse, adding that he thought it was worth spending the $12,000, but he also agreed with Councillor Scott that getting a better idea of what was needed could be accomplished by having contractors come in.

Councillor Angela Johnston said she agreed with Councillors Diebolt, Scott and Shaffer, but added that it was “a hard decision.”

“I kind of feel that if we go ahead with the $12,000 then it’s kind of saying we will go ahead with the rest,” she said. “(The building) is used, but I don’t think ‘well-used’.”

Councillor Johnston said she was concerned that the Big Lake Association has not indicated that it would assist with the repairs.” She noted the organization has raised considerable funds over the years. “At some point, some of that money needs to stay in the building,” she said.

Councillor Stephens attempted to find a compromise position, inquiring whether seeking 20 percent of the costs from the association would sway the council. Seeking a contribution from the users of the facility “the same as we do for Providence Bay,” he said.

Councillor Diebolt said that she still would have a problem. “I want to see the financials,” she said. “How much have they put into that building?”

“I have concerns with what Derek is suggesting,” said Councillor Scott. “Sure there’s $2,400, but what happens to the cost of repairing the whole building? Will they pay 20 percent of that?” He said that he would like to see a business plan and a lot more than 20 percent put into the plan.

At this point Councillor Stephens and Councillor Tribinevicius moved to withdraw the motion, seeking an outreach by staff to assess the position of the Big Lake Community Centre Association.

Big Lake Community Centre Association president Jeanine Demers said that she was both surprised and disappointed with the position of council. “I thought that after the property committee meeting it was settled,” she said.

Both she and association treasurer Lois Keller said that they did not think their group was in a position to meet the bar being set by council.

Ms. Keller noted that the association has donated over $23,000 to community projects over the past 20 years, but that the amounts being put forward by the councillors would be out of reach for the small community.

“We have expanded our membership by 16 members,” said Ms. Keller. “I wish I had known it was coming before council, I would have gone to the meeting.” In a personal note to council, Ms. Keller pointed out that the additions put in by the association have “doubled the value of that building.”

Ms. Demers said she believes the costs being bandied about for the remediation of mould issues in the building are too high. “We know there is mould,” she said. “But we don’t know the extent.”