Municipality of Bayham citizens did express concerns and ask questions on issues other than Project Ojibwa.
But the former cold war-era submarine’s significant physical and financial presence charted a course directly through the heart of Monday evening’s Deputy Mayor all candidates meeting at the Straffordville Community Centre.
Opinions on the sub through a full house estimated at close to 200, ranged from its potential as anchor to a project which will ultimately boost the municipality’s economic future, through to what one citizen referred to as “that chunk of scrap steel down in Port Burwell.”
The fact the municipality is acting as guarantor for a $6 million loan does mean their futures are undeniably intertwined, a reality underlined by one citizen’s query on whether property taxes would increase in Bayham should the Elgin Military Museum default on its loan?
Candidate Cliff Evanitski fielded the question, indicating he had recent communication with municipal staff on that exact topic. If there is a total default, said Evanitski, “we are looking at a 15% increase over 20 years.”
Fear of that worst-case scenario was expressed, but by no means accepted throughout the hall.
In response to one citizen ‘firing a torpedo at the former mayor,’ for her involvement in the project, Candidate Lynn Acre clarified she had not been under a conflict of interest due to the fact she had been out of politics when she joined the EMM board, and resigned immediately upon deciding to run in the current by-election.
“I just really, really believe in the project and will continue to do so,” Acre said Monday.
“The sub is here to stay,” she had responded during the first question on Project Ojibwa, noting her support of council’s decision to act as loan guarantor. “The business plan is solid and the bank believes it will pay it off.”
In a related response to a different question, the former mayor added it has ‘broken her heart,’ to see the submarine issue ripping people apart in the municipality. She is alarmed with a misconception Bayham, rather than the EMM is responsible for paying back the line of credit. The municipality is only the guarantor, she clarified.
“It’s not taxpayer money,” she said.
Acre also offered an analogy based on the windshield of a car being larger in front, than back.
“You look forward to the future and what it can be, you don’t get stuck looking back.”
A citizen would counter later in the debate however, that one had to look both forward and back ‘and check the blind spot.’
“Many of us sitting here are absolutely scared to death this project is going to fail,” he had stated earlier, following up his comments with a question on confidence in council and Project Ojibwa?
Acre responded she was ‘very, very sorry,’ to hear of his fears.
“Hopefully when the spring comes and the tourists arrive, you might feel a bit more comfortable.”
She also stated council instills confidence by working together and providing good services and decisions.
Evanitski’s response to the same question was ‘action and accountability.’ If elected, he promised a more aggressive approach on getting ‘the straight goods.
“So we can get the answers to you folks.”
Candidate Rainey Weisler committed to being ‘transparent’ if elected.
“Available, accurate information is another huge hiccup we see,” she stated, suggesting ongoing public meetings would be a plus, as evidenced by Monday’s capacity crowd.
“People are concerned, they want information and this is the best way to do it.”
Weisler had indicated she was in favour of Project Ojibwa, however, “there are some concerns.”
She is not in favour of breach of contract, Weisler stated, adding the vital importance of transparency both for the municipality and EMM.
Candidate Bob Lozon was unable to attend Monday’s meeting, sending his apologies. His brief, prepared statement indicated the loan guarantee was a hot topic, but suggested a sound business plan had been presented.
Another citizen inquired if each candidate would be in favour of extending the EMM more financial support, if requested?
“That’s a loaded question,” responded Weisler, before responding, “No.”
“I would say no,” said Evanitski, explaining the current commitment is a significant one for a municipality whose annual operating and capital budget is $9 million.
“A $6 million line of credit is a lot of skin in the game.”
Everyone in the room wants to see the project succeed, Evanitski continued, expressing his belief council’s role is a strongly supportive one. No one wants a $6 million lawn ornament, said Evanitski, but he would not be prepared to extend another nickel.
“Absolutely not – we’ve got plenty of involvement already.”
Personal interest (both as a Bayham resident and the fact his brother served on the Ojibwa’s sister ship) led Evanitski to visit the former HMCS Onondaga in Rimouski, Quebec.
“It is a cool project,” said Evanitski, impressed both with the submarine itself and a donor wall crediting donations from an extensive list of federal and provincial agencies, indicating in his mind, a project of similar scope may be ‘more than one little municipality can handle.
“We need help from senior levels of government,” said Evanitski, suggesting contacting MP Joe Preston, as a first step along that extended path.
“That’s where the role of a municipality comes on a project like this.”
Acre reiterated her belief in the Project Ojibwa business plan, and doesn’t believe further financial assistance would be sought. If it was, however, “I would say no,” she stated.
A two-part follow-up question focussed on when Acre was aware there would be cost overruns and secondly, what candidates would do to protect ratepayers and enforce existing agreements?
Acre responded extra dredging on landing day required because of the sea wall had been a clear sign.
“At that point it was pretty obvious it was going to be over (budget).”
Weisler stated overruns were a ‘huge concern for everyone in the municipality as it is for myself,’ and suggested council seek legal counsel to review the agreement.
Evanitski assumed council has already done that, but in any event, would like to see a full cost accounting.
“We expect to see the numbers, seem them ASAP and all the numbers,” not just totals over $5,000, he continued, but ‘every single penny’ of taxpayers money. “Frankly, that’s just good business.”
Acre agreed with Evanitski’s assumption council has received legal advice, and reiterated her and the bank’s faith in the project.
“I’m confident they will make it succeed through their business plan.”
But even at a worst-case scenario, she added, the EMM’s own financial resources would be liquidated and exhausted, before the loan guarantee would kick in.
Another citizen, recalling how he’d been ‘booed in Vienna’ for expressing his concerns earlier in the process, inquired whether it would be possible to replace the Project Ojibwa team?
Evanitski referred again to the Rimouski project, his lasting impression of its complexity and the fact the current team has succeeded in bringing the Ojibwa to Port Burwell, a considerable achievement in itself.
“That is one major kudo to them.”
Rather than thinking about change, he added, ‘you have to give them a chance to succeed’ and at this point, it is the EMM’s project, not the Municipality of Bayham’s.
“We haven’t had to hop in yet,” he added, noting if the municipality does, it also takes over liability.
Instead, Evanitski suggested doing all possible to support the project, “without spending another nickel.
“At the end of the day, it’s going help us all.”
The evening’s final question focussed on a backup plan, should the worst-case scenario arrive?
Keep a positive outlook, and have a backup plan, said Weisler.
“Perhaps some new blood, a different perspective.”
“My plan right now is to do everything in my power to make it succeed,” said Acre, prepared to cross that bridge when, and it if comes.
It is in the municipality’s best interest to ensure Project Ojibwa is successful, Evanitski reiterated.
“But we need a backup plan,” he added, suggesting developing industrial land in the northern end would be a plus. “That would help increase our envelope to take pressure off the taxpayers of Bayham.”