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Councillors approve ambitious playground improvement plan

Will use existing HCI money to fund upgrades to 58 playgrounds most in need of repair
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City council made some progress in striking the 2018 budget Wednesday night, agreeing to use part of the ward funds to pay for playground improvements at 58 playgrounds. (File)

City council made some progress in striking the 2018 budget Wednesday night, agreeing to use part of the ward funds to pay for playground improvements at 58 playgrounds.

The funds – formally known as healthy community initiative funds – provide $50,000 a year for each ward for neighbourhood projects.

They were controversial because previous councils voted to give each ward councillors the power to spend the money. But in 2015, councillors took away that power and stipulated that 75 per cent be spent on capital projects.

Ward 5 Coun. Bob Kirwan proposed diverting $2.3 million a year of the funds to fix the 58 playground most in need of upgrades, and another $3.7 million to fix field houses at 63 locations.

The United Way is also interested in the initiative, offering to raise $2.3 million to match the city's commitment to improving playgrounds.

Kirwan said better playgrounds in more deprived areas of the city can make a huge impact on the health of young residents there, and said it's one of the most important things this council could do to help those areas. By using the ward funds, the work can be done without raising taxes.

“This plan is taking the HCI funds, but I don't see it as losing the HCI funds,” he said. “The fact we can do it with existing funds ... is something we should be moving forward with.” 

The original proposal called for taking $450,000 a year of the $600,000 fund over the next 25 years to pay off the loan to pay for the work.

But Ward 4 Coun. Evelyn Dutrisac said consuming that much of the funds will discourage local volunteers, who are motivated by the fact that they have access to funds for small but important neighbourhood inititiatives.

“Residents are worried we're losing our HCI for our projects,” Dutrisac said.  “How are we going to ensure we have that part from our volunteers?  I think it's a great idea ... but I'm getting a lot of negative input from volunteers.”

Ward 1 Coun. Mark Signoretti agreed, arguing the point of the fund was to ensure each ward has money, and volunteers don't want to lose that.

“That's the feedback I'm getting,” Signoretti said. “The other wards shouldn't be penalized.”

Ward 12 Coun. Joscelyne Landry-Altmann questioned why the field houses were part of the plan, when they are city facilities. They should be addressed in a separate capital budget, she said. That would leave $2.3 million for the 58 playgrounds, with matching funds from the United Way, and leave enough HCI money -- $25,000 per ward -- to keep volunteers motivated.

“It takes a long time to get a community engaged,” she said.

“This is a, no pun intended, a healthy compromise,” quipped Ward 10 Coun. Fern Cormeir.

“It seems we're endorsing the spirit of this,” Kirwan said. “I think this could be one of our big projects moving forward.”

Councillors also agreed to let a proposal to build a twin-pad arena in Valley East proceed to the next planning stage, while not approving any money for the work.

Kirwan said the two aging arenas will need to be replaced at some point in the future, and this will allow the long-term planning to  nd begin.

“They haven't done a full costing of it yet,” he said.

The plan calls for closing the two rinks in the Valley and one of the two ice pads in Capreol, and building a new two-pad arena between Hanmer and Val Caron.

Councillors also voted to spend an extra $600,000 next year for added local road resurfacing. A proposal to increase the funding for the downtown community improvement plan to $2.7 million was reduced to $600,000 and put off for a decision to 2019.

One item not voted on – and therefore won't happen – was a $9.5 million request from the Brewer Lofts. That proposal calls for a mix of tax relief, grants and loans to transform the former Northern Breweries building on Lorne Street into condominiums. 

Councillors were still meeting late Wednesday, and we're expetected to pass the budget either late Wednesday or at another meeting Thursday 



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