Wellington County approves moves to firm up Continuum of Care costs

GUELPH – Wellington County councillors have agreed to hire an architect and cost consultant to facilitate further consideration of the Continuum of Care proposal, despite some concerns the $88-million seniors community project might not end up going forward.

At its Sept. 11 meeting, the county’s information, heritage and seniors committee approved a recommendation from Wellington Terrace administrator Laura Holtom to authorize staff to move forward with items recommended in a preliminary business plan for the project, including:

– issuing an RFP to retain an architect in a limited role to refine the design; and

– retain a cost consultant.

In the 2019 budget, the county approved spending $1 million for exploratory studies related to the project.

Committee chair Mary Lloyd told county council on Sept. 26 the budget for the architect, at $800,000 and the consultant at $50,000, combined with around $25,000 already spent or committed would use up the bulk of the allocation.

When the committee report was presented for approval, councillor Campbell Cork questioned the expenditures.

“I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves on this and we’re spending good money on soil tests and we don’t have that back to tell us if the soil is suitable for the building and yet we’re moving forward with hiring architects that might be tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Cork.

“I think the other larger question that has yet to be answered is whether or not the Continuum of Care is something we are going forward with, so on both these points I think we’re putting the cart before the horse.”

Lloyd pointed out funds for exploratory studies have already been approved. She noted the soil testing has been held up as the land in question has been rented to a farmer who would prefer to get his crop off “before we start drilling holes.”

She also explained the costing work would allow the county to proceed with applications for a grant that could cover up to 73 per cent of the $13-million cost of a community hub that is part of the continuum concept.

“It would keep us in under our budget of a million dollars and give us what we need to prove our case,”  said Lloyd.

She warned councillors of a “grey tsunami” of aging county residents who will be eventually be looking to move out of their homes and into facilities like those offered in the  continuum concept.

Councillor James Seeley urged caution on getting too locked into the continuum proposal without considering other options, noting the county would be allocating over $45 million of its own resources to the project if ultimately approved.

“It’s a large amount of money that’s going to meet the need of less than two per cent of the tsunami that’s going to come,” said Seeley.

“I believe this council needs to have a discussion as to what business it’s going to be in prior to approving this portion, as that $47 million, $50 million may be able to reach 15 per cent of the tsunami that’s coming as opposed to two per cent.”

Councillor Chris White said, “When looking at the overall value of this project it’s quite a bit of money.

“That said, I support moving ahead. We’ve already voted the money in, we’ve got to take that step.”

White noted he is not yet convinced the project should go forward.

“One of my concerns is bang for the buck. If we’re going to invest $80 million or $100 million is this really the best way to go?”

Yet White stressed, “this doesn’t commit us to the project, but it does give us an opportunity to apply for this grant.”

“We have already approved the $1 million. We did that back in January …,” said councillor Diane Ballantyne.

“We need to finish that research so that we can have an informed and full discussion regarding the project. At that point it makes sense to have these philosophical and economic discussions about whether we want to have this large project go through.”

Councillor Jeff Duncan pointed out that though the project is a large investment, the planned Wellington Place location allows the county to save on major potential costs such as land acquisition, servicing and wastewater capacity.

“At Wellington Place we have the land. We have confirmed that the services that are in place already would serve this development in that location,” Duncan noted.

“We also have the capacity … having those three things in place is important. It brings the price point down; we’re talking about a lot of money here.”

CAO Scott Wilson pointed out the architectural information is integral to council’s ability to make an informed decision on the project.

With the project at the conceptual stage, “We don’t have enough definition on the structures to be able to turn it over to a cost consultant and say, ‘How much is this thing going to cost?’” Wilson explained.

Councillor Allan Alls agreed with Ballantyne.

“We discussed this in January. Why are we rehashing it now? … We can’t make a decision until we have the knowledge in front of us,” said Alls, who asked the chair to call for a vote on the question.

“If we really believe it’s within the role of county government to make housing affordable for seniors moving forward, then we have to go to the next level,” said Warden Kelly Linton, who agreed the costing information is key to making an informed decision.

He also noted “we will take the lowest qualified bid” for the architect’s services, so the projected figure could be lower than budgeted.

Cork cautioned against putting too much weight on the possibility of obtaining a grant for a portion of the project.

“Grants come and go and to make a decision based on a carrot that’s hung in front of us, I don’t think is particularly wise,” he stated.

Cork said the costing information would only help with a decision “on a very specific concept,” and wouldn’t help council assess other types of investments the county could make.

“I think a philosophical discussion on that is more important,” said Cork.

Linton said, “I don’t think anybody thought this was going to be a silver bullet that was going to solve everything across the county, but this is something that we do have to focus on.”

A motion to proceed with an RFP for an architect and to hire a cost consultant was approved, with just Cork opposed.