It was an agenda item that was bound to be controversial, but in the end, it met little resistance as it was sent back to committee for another look.
Item #5.7 on last night’s town council committee of the whole meeting centred on the Memorial Sports Centre’s ice-in plans for this year, a keenly watched item that will decide what form the winter season will take for several groups in and around Fort Frances.
Coming from the Community Services Executive Committee, the report detailed two possible routes that the town could take for its ice-in plans, the first being that each ice user would be required to book and pay for two hours of ice time for each regular 50 minutes of play, and the second requiring groups to book an hour and a half for each regular 50 minutes. Both of the plans would increase the financial strain on organizations due to the extra rental fees, which have been suggested in order to either hire on extra staff for cleaning purposes or at the very least ensure there is enough time for existing staff to complete their duties before the next users hit the ice. The extra fees would also help recoup some of the lost income that would be generated by ice surface rentals in a regular year.
As the item was read in council by Chair Wendy Brunetta, each member of council in turn motioned for the item to be pulled for further discussion.
The major concerns expressed by the council members were the requirement that parents and spectators would not be allowed in the stands for games and practices and the impact the additional fees could have on ice users.
“The issue to me boils down to two major scenarios: one is the cost and then the other is spectators,” said councillor Andrew Hallikas.
“And it’s not a simple issue, because they’re related.”
On the subject of the increased user fees, councillors voices concerns over the optics of imposing higher rental fees, with several suggesting the town absorb the extra costs in order to keep fees the same, potentially relying on grant monies to help.
“I believe that we should surely access the monies from the grant we received from the province, but if that is not available, then the town should absorb those cleaning and disinfecting costs,” said councillor Rick Wiedenhoeft.
“Now is not the time to drive people away to increase user fees. Sometimes for the good of the community as a whole and for the quality of life that we all enjoy in this community, we have to bite the bullet and spend some money on other things than roads, sewers and snow removal, which are all very critical expenditures.”
Councillor Doug Judson agreed with Wiedenhoeft’s concerns.
“When I look at the cost increases that were ultimately going to be downloaded onto the user groups of the various programs and their members, to me what this proposal will ultimately be labeled as is a tax on families and young people in our communities,” Judson said.
“I think that we are entering a period where people need an outlet and people need recreation. They need to have some tools to support their mental and physical well-being.”
Councillor John McTaggart echoed Judson’s concerns regarding increased costs to user groups, as well as the impact on the mental well-being of the general public, noting that many people go to the arena to watch practices or games as an outlet in the same way players use their time on the ice as an outlet.
Town CAO Doug Brown, however, cautioned council that even though the town has received roughly $460,000 from the province in the form of the Safe Restart Fund, there are still plenty of details surrounding the money that are unknowns.
“We’re one of 444 municipalities that were given money to restart, but we don’t even know the timeline,” Brown explained.
“We can use it through 2020, but is it supposed to go into 2021? [Town treasurer] Dawn [Galusha], I know she sits on this committee at the provincial level. They don’t have all the answers. She sent me some information, we’ve spent a lot of money to date already. So we’re just trying to get that balancing act so the community knows and at the end of the day, council has to have enough revenue to pay for all the expenses.”
Brown also expressed concerns that absorbing costs for one municipal group would set an unachievable expectation that the costs to other user groups and facilities would be similarly absorbed.
In regards to the absence of spectators in the stands, Mayor June Caul noted she has heard plenty of concern over parents not being allowed in for children who may need their assistance for any reason, from emotional wellbeing to help going to the bathroom.
“That’s a concern that most of the committee had, I believe,” Caul said.
“The Under Nines will not start right away with the older children and that’s not a problem with me, but the problem is definitely with the spectator issues.”
Among solutions offered up by the public, Caul said, was the idea that spectators be designated one section of the stands per game or session, and that it be rotated following each session so that arena staff would have time to clean without taking extra time between user groups.
Culture and recreation manager Aaron Bisson explained that even with the spectators limited to 50 people and kept to one section of the stands at a time, the area would still not be able to adequately clean the seats.
“Right now I can’t tell you that we would have the time or the manpower to do that,” Bisson said.
“The only way I could guarantee that we could clean those areas concurrently and within that hour and a half period is to hire another person to specifically put in those areas.”
The original plans also included a caveat that the town would revisit the fees and no spectators rule two weeks after implementation to see if any changes could be made to reduce the fees or begin to allow spectators.
The motion was eventually passed that the report be sent back to the Community Services Executive Committee for re-evaluation, with no voices on council opposing. It will return to the Community Services Executive Committee on Monday, September 21 and whatever decisions are made then could be presented again to council at their next meeting on September 28. The ice surfaces at the arena are currently set to be ready for October 5.