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Tough Langton crowd skeptical of budget decisions

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The future of arenas in west Norfolk was top-of-mind for many at a crowded public meeting in Langton on Feb. 20.

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“I want council to understand how important these 140 kids are to Langton minor hockey,” veteran score-keeper Roger Demeester told Norfolk council, county staff, and a large crowd at the Lions Community Centre in Langton.

“One arena should not have to take the hit because all the other arenas lose money.”

A host of revelations about Norfolk’s finances in recent weeks have amped up emotions across the county, west Norfolk in particular. In January, Norfolk council passed a budget that will increase residential property taxes by 8.4 per cent.

Meanwhile, the closure of the Teeterville Pioneer Museum, the Norfolk Arts Centre, the Adult Community Building in Simcoe, and the arena at the Simcoe Recreation Centre have many fearing what’s to come. Council and county staff have warned the pain has just begun and that more cuts and tax increases are needed to arrest Norfolk’s drift toward insolvency.

Several speakers shared misgivings about the county’s plan to invite proposals from groups and individuals who want to try their hand at running Norfolk’s five remaining arenas.

Jim Norman, president of the Delhi and District Chamber of Commerce, said the county should throw the brakes on that idea. He asked the county to give community groups a chance to collaborate on alternatives.

“The problem with the request-for-proposals process is it’s kind of wishy-washy, whatever-you-come-up-with,” Norman said. “You’re putting the community at risk by doing that.

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“We want everyone to understand that we’re willing to work with you.”

Marlene VanDeWiele, president of the Langton Skating Club, said the idea of entrusting Norfolk’s arenas to user groups puts small communities in a precarious position.

VanDeWiele asked what happens if the group, company or individual goes bankrupt. She added user groups don’t have the expertise to operate an arena, let alone do so profitably.

Complicating last Thursday’s discussion were factors not immediately related to January’s budget. Sore points in west Norfolk include the $3.2 million Norfolk spent last year on 25 acres of unserviced land in Simcoe as the potential site of a $50-million recreation complex.

The audience was also not impressed that Norfolk is locked into a $1-million a year lease on its administration building on Robinson Street in Simcoe. Mayor Kristal Chopp responded by sharing details of deliberations which, to this point, have been confidential.

“We engaged legal counsel,” Chopp said. “We tried to get out of the lease. If we could’ve got out of the lease we would’ve and we would’ve found another building.”

The lease at issue was negotiated by a previous council. Linda Vandendriessche, of Langton, said the expense is galling now that the county has reduced hours of operation at the county administration building on Albert Street in Langton. It’s a perfectly good facility, Vandendriessche said – one that could house an entire county division.

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Norfolk incoming CAO Jason Burgess said the more “strategic” approach would’ve involved taking out a loan and building a county-owned facility “just like Haldimand is doing.”

Dozens of people lined up at the microphone. Council was also taken to task for spending more than three hours behind closed doors on Jan. 28 before emerging into open session to approve eight facility closures and program modifications in less than 15 minutes. County representatives were told the public should have been consulted.

Vittoria Coun. Chris Van Paassen, chair of Norfolk’s budget committee, said consultation would have been difficult given that the decisions involved the employment of identifiable county staff. However, Van Paassen conceded that Norfolk’s communications strategy leaves something to be desired.

“We screwed up,” he said. “Our communications need to get better.”

All members of Norfolk council attended the Feb. 20 meeting in Langton except Simcoe Coun. Ian Rabbitts. The public forum was the first of a series as council tours the county explaining Norfolk’s finances.

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