I have often written that the job of a councillor is a tough, often thankless job that requires those elected to make some difficult decisions, and the awarding of tender for the library project that will push the cost of the project to $7.1 million, $1.6 million more than council had previously approved, is indeed a tough decision.
At their special meeting held on Monday, July 15, members of council engaged in a lengthy debate about what would otherwise be a standard award of tender vote, but the library project is different; it is a long-term investment and it is an expensive investment.
With the council chamber filled to capacity, mostly with library supporters, councillors grilled staff seeking an explanation for the significant overage, or to find areas of potential cost savings. But there is no escaping reality, the library is going to cost much more than we had anticipated.
While I have long supported the need for a new, accessible library, readers of this paper will remember that I was absolutely against locating a new library on the grounds of the former Foodland grocery store. A number of times I wrote that I just couldn't fathom the municipality purchasing arguably the most prime piece of commercial real estate in the municipality and forever kissing goodbye to property taxes that would have been paid by a private owner. Additionally, I argued that as a commercial property, the former Foodland site also held the potential for job creation, whereas moving the library there would simply transfer existing jobs from one building to another.
I lost that battle, the municipality moved forward with purchasing the property for $1.525 million and that is where the new library will be located, for better or for worse. But with the announced budget overage, I started looking back at my editorials, and in July of 2017 I wrote that there were some unknowns that we should be wary of, the most important of which was, “Is the building structurally sound and suitable for conversion into a public library?”
What the municipality has found since purchasing the building is that it isn't exactly structurally sound, and in fact, due to the soil conditions found beneath the structure, an additional $800,000 needs to be spent to ensure that the building will remain standing.
So half of the projected $1.6 million budget overage for this project can be attributed solely to the structure itself, so in effect, the property for this new library will have cost us more than $2.3 million.
The location aside (as I mentioned, that's a lost battle in spite of the number of folks who have contacted me recently suggesting that council should look at other locations), the reality is that after years of kicking tires and exploring possibilities, Meaford is on the verge of finally replacing its decrepit old library building with a new facility that won't leak, will be accessible, and that should serve the community for several decades to come.
Council is struggling with the additional cost, and they should be. They approved a hefty $5.5 million budget for this project, and to find out after the bids have come in that the project is anticipated to exceed the approved budget by $1.6 million was no doubt a shock to councillors.
The question is, what should council do?
As a municipality we have already spent 15 years agonizing over the need for a new library, and now that the wheels are rolling we've hit a big snag. This is a time that I am certainly glad I am not a member of council because you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't.
Library supporters would rightly argue that they have waited long enough for a new facility, and every possible idea has been explored over the years, so yes the cost is more than expected, but get on with it. They would also rightly argue that this is a facility that is expected to serve the community for half a century, so the quibbling we do about the cost now will be all but inconsequential a decade or two from now.
Others would rightly argue that the cost has risen to a point that we have to ask if we can really afford it. They might argue that the $1.6 million overage could replace the closed bridges on the Holland-Sydenham Townline and they wouldn't be wrong. Some might suggest that the overage could fix a lot of roads and they would be correct.
Who's right? I don't really know, but I do know this: we absolutely need a new, accessible library facility, and one way or another we need to build one. Provincial accessibility legislation is set to kick in by 2025, and Meaford needs an accessible library before then. So somehow, some way, we need to figure out how to get there, and given how far down the road we are with this plan, I suspect that if council were to abandon the project now, even if a 'cheaper' solution is found, when the cost of undoing what has been done thus far, including the purchase of the property is factored in, I suspect $7.1 million will look pretty appealing.
My only advice to those encouraging council to reject the award of tender and go back to the drawing board is to be careful what you wish for.