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Chatham-Kent Asks A Reasonable $53,000,000 Question, but Gets No Answer

February 17, 2024

February 17, 2024

Do you remember taking math classes in school? One of the requirements was to show your work. It helped the teacher see where you went wrong, showed how well you understood the process and provided insight into the way you think.

Back then, the only thing on the line was a test score. Not such a big deal. But what if the stakes were higher? What if someone else getting the math wrong was going to cost you $53,000,000?

A big, controversial project is on the horizon in Chatham-Kent. It’s controversial because it’s a really large spend. It’s also controversial because the people of CK aren’t convinced it’s needed.

Just a few weeks ago, Council voted 11-5 (with 2 not voting due to a conflict of interest) to spend nearly $3,000,000 to purchase the Sears portion of the Downtown Chatham Centre.

According to the Municipality of Chatham Kent’s administration, our community needs to either renovate or replace the old Civic Centre. And while we’re at it, the museum and library buildings in Chatham need to expand, too.

The Municipality of Chatham-Kent Counts the Costs

Administration has run the numbers and it’s not going to be cheap. They say it’s going to cost around $37,000,000 to renovate the Civic Centre. You can thank previous councils for a big chunk of this number. Renovation has been badly needed for quite a while now. But the price tag has caused previous councils to keep punting this hard decision down the road. The result is a lot of expensive problems that need to be addressed.

There is also an additional $20,000,000 to be spent on upgrading the Library. And the museum needs upgrading, too.

The other option is to move and consolidate buildings. A move to the old Sears building would run about $53,000,000. At least that’s the number Administration is currently using. It’s an estimate that was derived in August 2022 and doesn’t factor in recent inflation. It makes you wonder what the price tag really is now.

The MOCK also projects recouping $9,000,000 by selling the Civic Centre, Library and Museum buildings. Of course, this isn’t really a number anyone can count on, as no one has a crystal ball to predict the selling price years down the road.

But, if we accept the Municipality’s numbers, it is “only” $6,000,000 more to pack up and move.

There are good arguments for both options. But that shouldn’t be the real concern just yet.

Can We See the Spreadsheet?

As it turns out, the Municipality isn’t willing to “show us the work” that went into arriving at any of their cost projections. In fact, it’s hard to find people who have seen the work.   

Interestingly, both the Library and Museum Board of Directors have yet to get behind this plan. Apparently, there are strong reservations. Even though they would be directly affected by any plan to change locations they aren’t being provided solid details. They also seem to be feeling like their input is being ignored. 

It often seems like the very step in the good old Admin Playbook is to ignore the people who have a real stake in the matter. We’ve seen this before. Remember how open and upfront they were about finding a new shelter for our unhoused population? 

But the real scary bit is that the Municipality won’t show anyone the numbers. The people of Chatham-Kent can only really evaluate the merits of these two proposals if we have full information. We don’t.

Which is odd. Sharing should be an easy thing to do. There would be, probably, a big spreadsheet. On it, there will be items with projected costs. The spreadsheet would add up all those numbers and determine the total project costs for each option presented to Council. 

People Are Asking to See The Numbers

John Cryderman, who has been waging what seems to be a one-man battle for transparency from the MOCK for years, made this simple request. He wanted to see their work and understand how they arrived at the totals they did.

Essentially he asked a few simple and relevant questions. How do we know that renovation of the Civic Center is $37 million? How do we know moving to the mall is $53 million? Where is the spreadsheet with the calculations? Will you share it?

It’s crazy. Administration won’t share. He’s had to file a FOIR request for heaven’s sake.

You might think, ok, he’s just a guy. Maybe the Municipality doesn’t just hand out spreadsheets to regular people (in matters like this, they should). Well, ask your local Councilor if they have seen that spreadsheet.

The Municipality won’t even show it to them. And yes, some of them asked to see it, too.

Think about that for a moment. The people who are elected to represent you aren’t privy to the calculations. They get some choices set in front of them, with two being recommended. Both have big price tags. Can we check the math? No. Um…..

Seems Like This Could Come Back to Haunt Chatham-Kent

This leaves our Municipal Council with two options.  Option 1: Council votes to move forward on a multi-million dollar proposal without being able to fully evaluate the numbers used and conclusions reached. They don’t check the math. They just do it.  Option 2: Council demands to see the numbers and refuses to take any action until they do.  

We already know what happened here. 11 Councilors chose the $53,000,000 proposal without being able to look under the hood. And that overrules the 5 who shared many of the same concerns. Kinda seems like this may have been in the works for a while, too. What could go wrong? 

Of course, this lack of transparency raises one really awful question, too.   

Revealing the calculations should put to rest any question of whether or not there is a clear best choice. It should take the “trust me” out of it and establish a firm foundation for council debate and decisions. These are good things. 

But what if those calculations don’t exist? What if the administration did sloppy work, and put together a half-assed assessment and brought that to Council? What if Council is making decisions based on incomplete, inaccurate, or wrong information?  

If (and it’s a big if) that were to be true, then that’s a huge dereliction of duty. It’s also a betrayal of trust between Council and the people of Chatham-Kent. And it could be the reason for the administration to play cover-your-ass and keep denying the requests.

We’re nearly $3,000,000 into this deal now, with a buy-back clause that is triggered by the sellers as a way out. Council has taken the first steps on a major commitment that will affect Chatham-Kent for decades. And they did it without getting to see the full financial picture that the administration should have been willing and able to share.  

Maybe Council made the right choice. But they don’t know and neither do we. 

  • No one can predict how much (or if) the Civic Centre and Library will sell for. 
  • No one has shown how inflation is affecting the total costs. 
  • There are no real numbers shown about how much the cost of disruption to the mostly remote workforce that called the Civic Centre their home would be during renovations. 
  • There are no promises the space at the mall is suited to the library and museum. 

The only ones who (hopefully) have the information aren’t talking. And that should be a red flag for Council and anyone who is going to have to foot the tax bill on this thing for years to come. 

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