Wellington North council struggles with decision on Mount Forest pool

Township staff calling on council to settle on taxpayer portion for proposed pool

KENILWORTH – The projected cost of a new outdoor pool in Mount Forest is keeping at least two Wellington North councillors awake at night.

The thought of sinking taxpayer dollars into a new pool has caused councillor Steve McCabe to lose sleep, he wrote in prepared remarks read aloud in his absence by Mayor Andy Lennox at a March 6 council meeting.

Considering the amount of money needed for current and future infrastructure in the township, McCabe wrote, it would be “fiscally irresponsible” to spend upwards of $5 million for the benefit of a few hundred residents “at best” for three months of a year.

Water and wastewater infrastructure on the other hand are the worthier causes, he reasoned, because residents benefit “every day, every hour.”

“Our focus should be on the delivery of real priorities … and our overall fiscal health,” McCabe wrote, noting the township struggles to pay for what it already has.

“Love me or hate me,” he added, the pool “is not a priority” but a “wish.”

Talk of a new outdoor pool in Mount Forest to replace the Lion Roy Grant pool, closed last summer because of its poor condition, has been ongoing since at least 2016.

The township’s 2018 recreation plan recommended replacement, and in 2019 a location at the Mount Forest and District Sports Complex was approved by council.

The latest costing estimate from last fall, accurate within 20 per cent, pegs a new pool at $5.3 million.

The price tag is proving to be a sticking point in this year’s budget deliberations.

“Councillor McCabe’s comments are fairly incorrect to the feeling of the residents of Mount Forest,” councillor Sherry Burke said.

Burke, who chairs the Mount Forest aquatics advisory committee tasked with fundraising for pool enhancements, believes the community supports a new pool.

“It is unfortunate that the chair of [the recreation committee] does not support something that the residents of Mount Forest feel is important to the safety of children,” Burke said, suggesting children would take swimming lessons at a new pool.

She also said seniors have used the Lion Roy Grant pool for morning swims. Burke called for a public meeting to get residents’ feedback, adding she wanted a decision made about a meeting that day.

The future of a pool in Mount Forest brought out frustrated responses from typically guarded councillors who have been asked by township staff preparing this year’s budget to make a call on how much the township is willing to spend.

Staff presented three funding options with a special tax levy for council to consider at a Feb. 21 meeting, but little discussion was had.

“I’m pretty divided about it,” councillor Lisa Hern said last week, adding that like McCabe, she too has lost sleep over the pool.

Hern agreed with McCabe’s sentiment, and fears supporting a new pool may cause Wellington North to fall behind on other projects or result in residents being taxed “up the yin-yang.”

However, Hern granted the pool would allow children to learn how to swim and provide seniors with a recreation outlet.

“If we were to not go forward with the pool, we do need to find a permanent way, a method, to get people to the other pool that we can actually staff,” Hern said.

Despite validating McCabe’s remarks, councillor Penny Renken said she would give “full support to councillor Burke.”

Mount Forest is growing, she said, and residents should have a pool.

“I’m struggling to get direction from council,” the mayor said with evident frustration in his voice. “There is no consensus on council.”

Lennox said he’s getting emails from both sides of the issue.

“[We’ve] got to try to find the middle ground,” he said.

Burke again called for a public meeting, but Lennox rebuffed the suggestion, saying “there’s no value” given council is already aware there are views for and against.

“We don’t need any more input to know that,” he remarked.

Three residents who spoke at the meeting – Bill Nelson, Rick Sinnamon and Jessica McFarlane – were in favour of a new pool and supported Burke’s call for a public meeting.

By not providing Mount Forest residents with their own pool, Nelson said there will be “tremendous backlash” against council and the municipality, and council would be dealing a “huge blow” to the idea of a “well-rounded community.”

A longtime user of the Lion Roy Grant pool, Sinnamon said he “doesn’t believe for a minute” the township needs to spend upwards of $5 million for a new pool, and called for “a realistic plan” to be advanced.

McFarlane, who is an aquatics committee member, said Mount Forest residents “will be really upset” without a pool.

The mayor said council needs to make a call on something that can survive a vote.

CAO Brooke Lambert agreed, saying everything hinges on how to pay for the project.

“We really do need some decisions,” Lambert said.

She recommended staff “assume a ‘go’ decision” with a township contribution of $2.8 million and a fundraising contribution of $2.5 million as detailed in one of three options presented last month.

Lambert said after the aquatics advisory committee agrees on a fundraising target, a public meeting may make sense.