Ditch Meredith Centre, save rural Chelsea

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by admin on June 30, 2010

A $15 – $20M. Municipal Water & Sewer for the Meredith Centre and Chelsea Creek Estates, etc. What has been really going on? -A chronology.

By Sheldon Weatherston
After two years of “not-a-penny-more” promises for the Meredith Centre, we learn that is not exactly the case. Apparently Municipal Water and Sewer has always been part of the deal. A scheme so expensive it will require developers to increase their density and total numbers of buildings to afford it. Other long-term costs include the ‘economic imperative’ for full utilization of its suburban capacity, i.e. a population of 3000 who would otherwise settle in Gatineau, overwhelming our historic villages. What follows are the facts as accurate as we have been allowed to discover.

Two years ago Without informing them, Mayor Perras and Foundation President, Caryl Green, committed all Chelsea taxpayers, to borrowing sufficient money to provide municipal water and sewer services to the Meredith Centre, as part of the financing formula including the Federal and Provincial grants for the project.

18 months ago The Municipality approved, apparently without due diligence, the Foundation’s “Business Plan”. It was based on the least accurate class of construction estimate, (with a potential for a 75% to 100% cost over-run for ‘unforeseeables’). It also left out funding for other critical elements of the Centre.

15 months ago, The Foundation was informed in detail of these issues and chose not to acknowledge them publicly in its campaign for the referendum.
One year ago, During the Meredith referendum campaign, Chelsea tax-payers were repeatedly reassured that they would NOT be responsible for a penny more than the $2.7M. municipal capital contribution plus interest. They voted without knowledge of the additional costs associated with their responsibility to provide municipal water and sewer and other unfunded items.
6 months ago, Again without the knowledge of the community, funds were committed for engineering services for a municipal water and sewer system designed to service the Meredith Centre and a population of 3000 plus. The citizen-led Visioning exercise was still 6 months from completion and was not informed of this “other vision” that was implicit in the parameters for new contract.

March 2010 Following an unpublicized schedule for completion for the opening of the Meredith Centre in 12 months, Council called tenders and bids were received for the installation of the water and sewer mains required for this other vision. The bid average was about 100% over the estimates and total construction cost was now estimated by the Municipality at about $15M.

This estimate ignored the potential for a similar cost over-run on the $10M. estimate for the treatment plants. It also ignored the the potential for rock excavation, (like Farm Point), other costs estimated by the engineers to be up to 35% of construction costs, and around $1000 per meter for several kilometres of side roads like Bois Chatel. Individual hook-up costs are another, unmentioned extra.

April 2010 The Council planned a special meeting to borrow the first tranche of funds to pay for the installation of the water and sewer ‘mains’, for completion this fall. The second tranche of borrowing was planned to follow later this year for the treatment plants.

April 27 & 29. Instead, two public meetings were called to obtain questions on the scheme, but explicitly NOT to answer any. We were emphatically promised that the Municipality would quickly set up a citizen discussion page on its website permitting everyone to post questions, read each others questions and comments, and subsequently have their questions answered by staff, i.e. a completely transparent process. We were also promised more “public consultation” before any more decisions or actions.

May, 2010 Vision Chelsea presented its report to council. It turned out to have no relationship with the infrastructure scheme that council had been working on since the previous December. The council’s scheme is obviously based on a very different ‘vision’ of the future than the one its citizens have developed.

Then we find, contrary to  April promises, the municipality has been planning a whole new water and sewer scheme with the developers for the future Meredith Centre, the Spa Nordik’s  hotel plans, Chelsea Creek Estates, and existing Old Chelsea. Chelsea taxpayers will be expected to borrow for future indefinite developments on the basis of potential repayment by developers IF the economy is favourable. The plan includes water drawn from the Gatineau near Ben’s Towing, sewage treated on Chelsea Creek Estates and effluent pumped to the Gatineau River.

June 7, 2010 we learn that council has only recently contracted for an analysis of the Meredith Centre’s original “business plan”. The inadequacies of that plan, (approved by the council 18 months ago), has now been exposed by the costs that were previously ignored. While the council has spent thousands from funds it borrowed last year, wisely, the Province has still not made its commitment for the $6.1 million grant money.

Last week in the Low Down, as if the Vision Report did not exist, the municipality announced that developers have “no choice” but to increase their development density to afford the cost of the council’s infrastructure plan. It also became clear housing numbers would also have to increase dramatically. New plans, discussions with developers, increased development contrary to the citizen’s Vision Report, yet still no citizens forum on the municipal website as promised in April. ‘Public participation’, only vague promises.

Meanwhile the original sewer system for Old Chelsea, (long overdue to stop ground-water pollution, and save residents and businesses thousands per year pumping holding tanks), remains in limbo while the municipality remains focused on its mega-project. Last year’s Provincial estimates  for the original Old Chelsea sewer scheme, suggest a $330,000 cost to  all taxpayers, assuming the usual10% formula. Why not do it this Fall?

If the Meredith Centre is not to cost us a penny more than we were emphatically promised, not to cause any more community angst, its flawed capital financing plan must now include all its costs, i.e. its water and sewer and other infrastructure requirements without hidden costs paid by the municipality. It cannot be permitted to impact indirectly on the density and size of new development that maybe required to share the same utility services.

Will our Council finally deliver their promised “transparency” and “public participation” so that we can rationally and openly ensure together as a community, that all our municipal investments are financially viable and affordable, meet the needs of Chelsea citizens and reinforce their Vision.

After these years of flirtation with the complexities and costs of suburbanization are put behind us, we hope Chelsea can look forward to coming together in developing its unique rural character, preserving its rural status and serving its citizen’s needs first. (Or, we can wait for an inevitable and rational absorption into Gatineau when Provincial planners see our costly suburban infrastructure and development and remove our rural designation)

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Sheldon Weatherstone, President

Chelsea Citizen’s Association