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Two votes, much debate and one tour later, council backs accessibility plan

City council in foyer [1]

Belleville councillors left the council chambers Wednesday for a first-hand look at city hall’s front foyer. Chief building official Ted Maracek (at left with paper) explained the difficulties of renovating the entranceway to (from left) councillors Mitch Panciuk (at rear), Jack Miller and Egerton Boyce, Mayor Taso Christopher, and councillors Garnet Thompson, Jackie Denyes, Paul Carr, Kelly McCaw (at rear) and Mike Graham. Photo by Joseph Quigley, QNet News

By Joseph Quigley [2]

BELLEVILLE – The accessibility of city hall was the most contested issue on the final day of Belleville council’s 2016 capital budget meetings.

Council and city staff said they were surprised at how high the estimate for new accessibility options at city hall proved to be.  The estimate divided council, and it took lengthy discussions and two recorded votes before the budget request for accessibility was approved.

City staff have been investigating ways to replace the current wheelchair lift in front of city hall with a better alternative. A total of $140,000 was allotted for this project in previous budgets, but staff proposed an additional $343,000 in the 2016 budget [3] to replace the lift with an outside ramp, making the total budget for the ramp $483,000.

Chief building official Ted Marecak said that after investigating multiple ways to improve accessibility, officials determined that an external ramp was the most sensible. It would be difficult to do something inside the entrance to the building, such as installing an elevator at the front, due to the need to keep city hall open, he said.

“An interior solution while retaining public and staff access to city hall is physically impossible to include,” said Marecak.

Coun. Jack Miller said he was surprised at the cost of the ramp and wanted staff to look further into other solutions. He then made a motion to delete the item from the 2016 budget.

“I’m asking: is this all we can do? I can’t imagine (a ramp) costing $484,000. When you consider what that can normally get, and when I compare it to (the accessibility ramp at the Thurlow Community Centre [4] that) just opened at one-third the price ($150,000), I’m just asking: is that the best we can do under the circumstances?”

Coun. Garnet Thompson stressed the importance of pushing the project forward despite the cost.

“I know it’s a lot of money, but we are in the process of amending the main floor because of accessibility issues. We have a lift out front that is on the verge of breaking down,” said Thompson. “I wouldn’t mind putting (the project off) until 2017, but to delete this item – it’s got to come back. Deleting it is not going to solve the problem because of what the issue is in this city.”

Council takes a tour

After some discussion, Mayor Taso Christopher suggested that council move to the front foyer of city hall for an explanation on what options had been explored. Council agreed and the unorthodox trip was made.

Marecak said the limitations of city hall make a number of options for accessibility impractical. He had not expected an external ramp to cost that much, he said, but there were a variety of reasons for it.

“The number surprised me. I questioned the architect who provided me with that: ‘Are you sure? This just doesn’t seem to make sense to me.’ He provided a list of the breakdown of the cost. Sidewalk excavation, foundations, guards, glass, doors, interior alterations. He broke it all down. I asked him to even re-look at it. I wanted to be sure that this is the number,” he said.

Some of the requested budget was for insurance purposes in case of difficulties during construction, he explained.

“I would like to think that if this amount of money was approved, the numbers would come in less than what we’re asking for,” he added.

The councillors then returned to their chambers to discuss the options available. Coun. Mitch Panciuk said the ramp was a good idea.

“I think the exercise to go downstairs was helpful. I truly believe that the ramp is the only and best option for us” to deal with the accessibility problem, said Panciuk.

But Coun. Egerton Boyce was less sure.

“I’m going to support this (motion to delete the ramp from the budget). Just brainstorming the way we did down (at the front foyer), there were a lot of questions. I think there are other options we could explore,” said Boyce.

Miller said he understood that better accessibility was needed, but added that fiscal responsibility is important.

“Do we need to do this (to improve accessibility)? Absolutely. But I also think it’s up to us to make sure that we explore every possibility and do (due) diligence. I just want to find a way to accommodate this at the best price for the taxpayer,” said Miller.

After the discussion, a recorded vote was called. The motion to delete the ramp form the budget was approved 6-3. Christopher and councillors Miller, Boyce, Paul Carr, Mike Graham and Kelly McCaw voted for the deletion, while councillors Thompson, Panciuk and Jackie Denyes voted against it.

But that only concluded the first discussion.

Coun. Miller changes his mind

After council went through the rest of the budget, Miller moved to put the funding for the ramp back into it. Miller’s motion was to fund it for $150,000 in 2016 (as opposed to the $343,000 requested), for a total cost of $290,000.

“This has to be done,” said Miller. “It’s the messaging. There were some ideas brought forward that I’d like to see explored. If they’re not feasible, then fine. But I’d like to explore all avenues.”

Miller said the city could use reserve funding if more money proved necessary.

But Panciuk argued that the project should be funded at the full amount so that if additional funding was needed, it would already be budgeted for.

“I’m getting very nervous about this, because I think this project needs to be done and it needs to be done right away,” he said.

Thompson then put forward an amending motion to fund the accessibility project at the requested $343,000, which pushed out Miller’s motion.

Carr said he had been convinced to change his vote.

“I voted no originally. Coun. Panciuk brings forward some good arguments,” said Carr. “The fact is the message has been clear that the number is high, (but) certainly I have confidence that staff will work hard on that number. This building isn’t ours; it belongs to every resident in the city, and every resident should have equal access. So Coun. Panciuck has convinced me that it’s a necessity.”

The final vote

A second vote, to fund the project for the requested $343,000 in the 2016 budget, was held. It passed nearly unanimously, with only Christopher voting against it.

Miller said that despite all the debate, council has supported accessibility all along.

“Everyone expressed the same sentiment today that we have to do something to replace what’s there. I think we all feel the same about accessibility in our community. That was never in question,” he said.

After the meeting ended, Christopher explained that he voted against fully funding the project for financial reasons.

“That was strictly the dynamics of the economics,” the mayor said. “We’ve seen in the history of governance, if your benchmark is X amount of dollars, they usually reach the mark. I would have been fully supportive of taking the budget to $290,ooo. It’ll be interesting to see what (Marecak) brings forward here.”