North Huron Council grants $70,000 in relief to Columbus Centre board
BY DENNY SCOTT
North Huron Township Council is providing nearly $70,000 in relief to the Columbus Centre board after the organization wasn’t able to pay its obligations to the township in full over the past two years.
North Huron Council, at the suggestion of Deputy-Reeve Trevor Seip, waived sums the group owed North Huron for the use of the Columbus Centre in the North Huron Wescast Community Complex from 2020 ($8,113.63) and 2021 ($32,939.50) and agreed to provide $14,000 in relief per year for 2022 and 2023. The Columbus Centre board will still have to pay $15,000 per year as an ongoing contribution to the township for the North Huron Wescast Community Complex and the board’s share of the utilities.
The $41,053.13 in back contributions will be covered by what Director of Finance Darcy Chapman called a “six-figure” surplus from 2021 that he said is yet to be finalized. The relief in 2022 will be paid for out of the township’s recreation budget, specifically from funds earmarked for COVID-19 expenses that council felt wouldn’t be realized due to the lifting of restrictions. Council directed staff to budget around the $14,000 shortfall when preparing the 2023 operating budget later this year.
Seip explained, early in the discussion, that there had been some confusion about the situation when council initially discussed the issue in February. He said, after meeting with the Columbus Centre board, that the issue was complicated when it was discussed last year with the possibility of council moving its chambers. He said the group was looking for a “reset” on its debt and, taking into consideration how the community at large, other groups and local schools benefit, he felt erasing the group’s existing debt and easing its future debt is the best path.
He said council could cover the debt with working reserves, however, staff later informed Seip that the working reserves are earmarked for specific projects and budgets and can’t be freely used by council. Seip believed, however, that the decision could be made without impacting taxpayers.
Despite Seip’s desire, council eventually decided on the above solution, which will see the relief provided in 2023 directly impact the budget.
While council voted in favour of the motion to provide the relief, Councillor Kevin Falconer reiterated that he was staunchly against the move, despite wanting to help the organization out.
While he agreed with the importance of the group, he said that, regardless of the terminology, the Columbus Centre is leasing property from the township and it’s not fair to subsidize it, especially given that several stores in Blyth are moving due to rising rent costs. Falconer said it wasn’t fair that the township has been charging those businesses taxes and is now going to give it to another organization to pay debt or obligations.
Falconer also pointed out that other charitable organizations have been finding ways to raise money despite the pandemic, which he didn’t feel the Columbus Centre board had done. He went on to say this could be indicative of the organization not being able to continue on, citing a decline in its volunteer base, as well as overall funding available through the community.
He said council shouldn’t, in that case, “take a leap of faith” and pay the group’s outstanding debt. Falconer also took exception to the fact that, as a private organization, the Knights of Columbus have sold $105 billion in insurance policies and have $24 billion in assets “just in Ontario.”
“They gave $1.5 billion to charity, “ he said, saying they should have helped their own organization.
Falconer also compared the Columbus Centre to the upper hall of the Blyth and District Community Centre, saying that, if council is subsidizing costs, he could likely find someone to “use that space for free.”
Finally, Falconer said he didn’t feel comfortable giving away tax dollars to a private organization without the public having their say on the matter.
Councillor Chris Palmer refuted Falconer’s claims, saying that the Columbus Centre board isn’t like a private business or other community group because they are “partners” with North Huron in the North Huron Wescast Complex.
Reeve Bernie Bailey compared the Columbus Centre board to the Blyth Festival, saying that North Huron gave $500,000 to the Blyth Arts and Culture Initiative 14/19 to upgrade Blyth Memorial Hall (a municipal building) several years ago.
“We give everybody help, that’s our job,” Bailey said. “If we’re good business people, we can finance it and will see a payback from it down the road.”
Falconer took exception to Bailey’s comparison of the organization to the Blyth Festival, saying that anyone can be a member of the Festival or on its board and go to meetings, however that’s not the case with the Knights of Columbus. Falconer said he couldn’t join the group due its membership rules and that women can’t join either.
While staff previously sought to differentiate between the Columbus Centre board and the Knights of Columbus, the letter that was penned to council by the board requesting relief noted that “The Knights of Columbus have paid the Township approximately $900,000 in rent and pledges over the past 20 years.”
Bailey defended his analogy, saying that the Festival’s board meetings were private. (The Citizen has been told by the Festival that their meetings are considered public.)
Falconer reiterated he wanted the Columbus Centre board to succeed, but said council was bending the rules, not only in supporting the board, but in changing the budget so soon after it had been passed without a budget approval process.
Seip said it made financial sense to help out because if the group didn’t exist, council would see “more than $60,000 a year” in funding requests from schools, churches and charitable organizations that benefit from the Columbus Centre.
He also said council doesn’t “have to worry about treating other people the same, because every person’s situation” is different.
Despite Falconer’s contestations, and his wish to not make a decision for the next session of council, his fellow council members voted in favour of wiping the existing debt and providing relief to the Columbus Centre board against its obligations for the next two years.
Staff will also be bringing an amended agreement between the township and the board to council at a later meeting for consideration as council members said the $29,000 may not be an accurate dollar amount given recent information about utilities being made available. Specifically, with the ice out of the arena, utility costs were lower than anticipated, leading councillors to wonder if the board was overpaying.