More than 150 people came out to a special executive council meeting held Monday afternoon at the Clearbrook Library. Many of them were on hand to voice their opposition to a $17.5-million partnership with the YMCA to build a facility on the former MSA Hospital site.

YMCA proposal receives approval in principle

Abbotsford council moves $17.5 million project forward, but adds long list of conditions.

A proposed $17.5-million partnership with the YMCA has been given approval in principle by Abbotsford council.

The decision was made Monday night in front of more than 150 spectators who came out to a special executive meeting at the Clearbrook Library.

More than 30 people spoke regarding the project, with about two-thirds of them opposed.

The proposal would see the city spend a maximum of $17.5 million over two years ($8.75 million in 2015 and again in 2016) to pay for half the construction of a new YMCA facility located on the site of the old MSA Hospital on McCallum Road.

The YMCA would fund the other half and assume all operating costs. The YMCA would also own the building, tentatively scheduled to be built by 2016.

Among the main public concerns expressed was the impact the $17.5-million expenditure would have on taxes. Numerous speakers said the city could not afford the project at this time.

Last week, Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman said the city already has $12 million available in capital reserves.

“There should not be a tax increase associated with the YMCA because we’re finding it out of existing revenues,” he said.

Council later approved a 0.7 per cent capital levy to be paid by taxpayers next year, generating approximately $800,000 a year, to build cash reserves for future capital projects.

“We would have approved that (increase) with or without the Y. It had nothing to do with it,” Banman later told The News.

He said the request for a capital levy, originally pegged at one per cent, was already in the budget.

Banman said placing the YMCA in the budget will defer other capital work. Those projects include road reconstruction, replacement of fleet vehicles and a new police station.

Former city manager Gary Guthrie was among those speaking against the proposal Monday, maintaining “there will be a tax increase if the deal proceeds.”

He said if the increase is not for the YMCA itself, it will be needed to replace the money taken out of capital reserves to pay for the Y.

Guthrie also said approval should not be given until a detailed business plan is provided, listing direct and future financial implications.

A motion was made to only approve the deal in principle and add a list of conditions that would have to be met before final approval, including preparing a business plan for the project, outlining the benefits the community receives from the operation of YMCA programs, drafting a legal agreement ensuring the city will be reimbursed if the YMCA discontinued operating, and a commitment that the city has no responsibility to provide operating funding to the YMCA, and no responsibility for any cost overruns of the project.

The motion passed 6-3 with Coun. Simon Gibson, Henry Braun and Moe Gill voting against.

Braun said he is not in favour of the deal because “the city doesn’t get anything” other than programs, for the $17.5 million investment.

Reading from a 2010 report on the YMCA proposal,  Braun said “the city and the YMCA will have ownership consistent with investment, risk and ongoing operational costs.”

He noted that “in that document … ownership was discussed and this report implies that there will be an ownership by the city of this facility of some kind. It doesn’t say what.”

But further reports do not address any ownership by the city.

“That’s been lost  in the MOU (memorandum of understanding) that was signed in February 2011 and is not in the subsequent two reports.”

Braun maintained the city should have some ownership of the facility.

Banman told the crowd that the approval in principle means the city still has “outs.”

“It does not mean we are 100 per cent committed to this,” said Banman. He said discussions are ongoing.

Other questions persist, including whether the YMCA would contribute tax dollars to the city or if the organization would seek exemption status.

“They (YMCA), of course, are going to ask to be tax exempt but that’s not a guarantee. It’s up to the will of council. I would say based on the current attitude of council, I think that would be a hard sell,” said Banman.

The public also wanted to know how the new structure will impact current city-owned recreation facilities.

Mark Taylor, general manager of parks, recreation and culture, said, “We would expect a small drop in attendance of two to five per cent in the first two years and to recover and do better than that in the future.”

He said after the initial drop, a larger customer base is built.

Taylor based those figures on results from other communities across the country. He said he would expect the numbers for private businesses to be similar.

As part of the proposed deal, the Fraser Health Authority will donate a portion of the old hospital lands for the YMCA site.

Marco Buccini, executive director of facilities, planning and real estate for Fraser Health, spoke to the crowd to share some of the vision Fraser Health has for the property, calling it a “campus of care for health.”

“One of the definitive plans for the site is to create a 200-bed complex care resident facility that would replace the existing beds that are on site at the Worthington and Cottage facilities.”

He said they are also interested in creating a “centralized community health centre” that would contain a range of clinics geared toward health and well-being.

The YMCA comes in as a “prevention model” to help avoid some health issues, he said.

“We do want to retain some of the land for health use, but we also think we can leverage some of the land to bring a private-sector partner in to look at a market housing component,” he said.

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