By Jenna Cocullo, Local Journalism Initiative
Chatham-Kent councillors are still not sold on the idea of spending millions renovating the Civic Centre.
On Monday, council is set to discuss, for the fourth time, the $18.1 million needed for repairs and upgrades.
“That’s a tough one to swallow right now considering we haven’t had a meeting at the Civic Centre since March, but that being said there is some work that needs to happen and can’t be something we need to ignore,” said Wallaceburg Coun. Aaron Hall.
Staff recommendations call for the replacement of the HVAC system (heating, ventilation, and cooling), moving the council chambers to the first floor, and replacing old elevators, windows and doors.
“I feel the same way I did last time, even more so now. We are in the midst of a pandemic. The optics are awful,” said South Kent Coun. Trevor Thompson.
Thompson was one of 11 councillors who voted down the recommendation when it was last brought to council in January.
The need to address the age-driven deterioration of the Civic Centre, built in 1977, and the need to maintain the building’s components was first brought to council in 2017. In 2019, staff brought a second report to the council, recommending the chambers be moved to the first floor for accessibility concerns.
At the last discussion on the topic, councillors asked staff to bring back a report outlining the specific costs for only the HVAC system, the most critical component in need of repairs. The report totals the cost at more than $9 million.
The costs would be supported from the building lifecycle reserves with no negative impact to the tax levy, according to the report prepared by Infrastructure and Engineering Services.
“I find it disingenuous to say it won’t cost taxpayers. The money could be put toward anything else,” Thompson said.
At September’s council meeting, Thompson successfully brought forward a motion directing administration to review which staff positions have been home-based during the pandemic and how they can maintain a working-from-home structure in the future. He said it will allow Chatham-Kent to continue promoting the idea that it is a desirable place to live with remote working opportunities.
“So who knows, three or four or five years from now we might not even need a building that size. I can’t support any recommendation to spend that much money at this point,” he said.
Regarding the HVAC system, Chatham Coun. Michael Bondy said that he does not believe the situation is so dire it is in need of immediate repairs and will have to hear more from staff on the impacts of not repairing the system.
“If we do HVAC, we have to do other things to bring the building up to code and that costs more money. If that’s the case then no, the timing is off. I think we can put this off, muddle through it, until the timing is right,” he said.
At the meeting earlier in the year, Chatham Coun. Marjorie Crew said the municipality should put its money where its mouth is if Chatham-Kent wants to be an accessible and energy-efficient place.
Now she said she will have to weigh the timing with the impacts the bad HVAC system could have on staff.
“It’s a tough thing to get by people. We’re not spending money on ourselves, we are employers that need to make sure the people we hire are healthy and safe.”