Merrickville-Wolford Council has decided not to enter into a cost sharing agreement with Smiths Falls for the use of their recreation facilities. Smiths Falls has been asking Merrickville-Wolford, along with other surrounding municipalities, to contribute to their operating costs for several years. In 2017, the previous council was faced with the decision as to whether to enter into the agreement and pay $17,475 per year for Merrickville-Wolford residents to have access to the facilities.
After consultation with the public, council decided against signing on to the agreement, opting instead to pay up to $200 per person to cover any user fees Smiths Falls might charge for the use of their facilities. Smiths Falls responded by passing a by-law banning Merrickville-Wolford residents from their recreation facilities, stating the surcharge model was not feasible, as they had found collecting these fees to be quite difficult in the past.
Merrickville-Wolford CAO, Doug Robertson, submitted a report to council at the last meeting asking for direction on what he saw as an open file in terms of the cost sharing agreement with Smiths Falls. It stated that, although Smiths Falls had passed the by-law, it has not been enforced, and the town has continued to allow Merrickville-Wolford residents to use the facility without a surcharge. CAO Robertson recommended in the report that council enter into the cost sharing agreement as a gesture of partnership, goodwill, and out of fairness to the surrounding municipalities, who are paying a share of the facility’s operating costs. Net costs have increased slightly since 2017, making Merrickville-Wolford’s 4.11% share $18,300.
“From my point of view, it would make things equitable and would improve services for all of our residents, and makes our municipality more attractive,” Mayor Doug Struthers said at the council meeting. “It shows a willingness to have conversations and partner on other opportunities, as the CAO has indicated in this report, in the future.”
Councillor Don Halpenny said that, while he understands why Smiths Falls is asking for money, he was not sure whether it made sense to spend that sum of money on the few people who are using the facility. Councillor Timothy Molloy agreed, stating that, while Smiths Falls has been looking to collect money from them for many years, they have yet to give a definitive answer about how many Merrickville-Wolford residents use the facility.
“They fail to give us, year after year, the statistics on which we can base this assessment,” he said. He also noted that many of the amenities that Smiths Falls offers, including a skating rink, soccer pitches, ball diamonds, and walking paths, are all available within Merrickville-Wolford’s boundaries. “We can provide the recreational facilities for our people.”
CAO Robertson advised council at the meeting that Smiths Falls had provided a list of 82 Merrickville-Wolford addresses that corresponded to people using the facility in 2017/18. Councillor Molloy didn’t feel that this list was enough proof, as some Merrickville mailing addresses are actually located in Elizabethtown-Kitley.
Councillor Bob Foster felt that the cost of signing on to the agreement with Smiths Falls was relatively small, to be able to offer the use of Smiths Falls’ recreation facilities to Merrickville- Wolford residents.
“I think we are in a situation where Smiths Falls built it and, if we pay in, we’ll use it once we can advertise that it is available to our residents,” he said. “This is a community that is growing and thriving, and this is a chance for Merrickville-Wolford to take advantage of the facilities that they have there for, really, a pretty small investment.”
It was clear from the discussion around the council table that views on the issue were at odds. In a recorded vote, council voted against entering into the cost-sharing agreement, with Mayor Struthers and Councillor Foster voting for entering into the agreement, and Deputy Mayor Michael Cameron, Councillor Halpenny and Councillor Molloy voting against.
Council instructed staff to alert Smiths Falls of their decision and see if they can negotiate another agreement that would see them contributing to the cost of running the facility through user fees, or another case by case arrangement. They also requested that staff get in touch with the Ontario Minor Hockey League Association to see what the rules are about one municipality banning another from using a facility where one of their teams practice.
Smiths Falls CAO issued a statement to the North Grenville Times after hearing about council’s decision.
“The Town of Smiths Falls values the relationships we have with our municipal neighbours and believes strongly that we are much stronger when we work together for the collective benefit of our citizens,” he wrote in an email. “With this in mind, we wish to continue to pursue inter-municipal arrangements that deliver value to our taxpayers through collaboration. We have profound respect for the commitments our other municipal partners have made to enable unfettered access to the Town’s recreation assets by their residents. We intend to protect the strength of our partnerships.”