Tempers flared at city council’s regular meeting as council members and two families sparred about the Seventh Avenue Southwest bridge and how to pay for a new structure.
Deb Thorn and Tim Avery, and their lawyer David Chow, spoke during the Dec. 7 meeting, asking that the municipality repair the bridge’s pilings and temporarily open one lane for their use. They also asked council to add this project to its five-year capital plan and start putting away money now.
City administration has not added this bridge to the 2021-25 capital budget plan. The bridge has been closed since 2015 after ice and floods damaged the structure.
Earlier in the meeting, council tabled several motions that could provide temporary access over the bridge for further discussion.
The opening salvo
The conversation became heated after the presentation, with Coun. Dawn Luhning firing the opening salvo. She pointed out a tax increase of 12 per cent — according to finance director Brian Acker earlier in the meeting — would likely be needed to cover the $3.65 million bridge replacement.
She wondered how council could ask taxpayers to pay, while she indicated she had two options as a councillor: raise taxes or reduce services.
“Well, we’re also citizens of Moose Jaw and taxpayers, so we are not at all suggesting a 12-per-cent increase to the taxpayers,” said Thorn.
What the families are proposing, she continued, is that council plan now to replace the bridge within the next decade, which is doable with a five-year capital plan. Instead of demolishing the Coteau Street East bridge in 2021, council should use that money as a starting point for this bridge.
Luhning replied that the money has to come from somewhere, so a tax increase would likely be needed. Thorn replied that council should put money away in year four of the five-year plan, so there is money within 10 years. City administration could also pursue infrastructure funding through the province.
“Had we known how serious the bridge was to pedestrians walking across that bridge all summer and this winter, maybe there would have been a bit more urgency to do something,” she added.
Chow pointed out it was “very inflammatory” to equate a new bridge for $3.65 million with a 12-per-cent tax increase since such comments emotionally manipulate residents. That is not what the families were suggesting, he added, indicating funding could come from sources other than tax dollars.
“It is very different on that side (at the podium) than in this seat,” said Luhning.
City administration provided council with the potential tax increase, she continued. Even if the replacement happened during the next five years, council would have to take out projects from the capital budget to find funds.
“I’m asking you how we should pay for it. I think that’s a fair comment to the people I represent … ,” Luhning added.
“Yes, and these are people you have represented for how many years and this bridge was damaged in (2015),” replied Chow. “Tell me what the City of Moose Jaw has done since (2015) when it was damaged?”
Coun. Jamey Logan, deputy mayor, stepped in to calm the situation. He pointed out this is a new council that hasn’t had much time to review this situation or respond to pre-election criticism. He thought the families and council could work together without emotions rising or coming in “guns a-blazing” with a legal team.
Accusations were made that city administration had secret meetings with the province, even though the delegation talked about municipal officials’ confidential meetings with the government during their presentation, said Mayor Fraser Tolmie.
“So there have been inflammatory comments made. It’s not a great way to start off this new relationship with council,” he continued. “I feel administration should be apologized to because they have, in this time, tried to work with the province to ensure access. It’s triage. They are trying to find a solution to help the residents without coming forward with a gold-plated answer.”
He then asked Chow several times if he would apologize for accusing city administration of holding secret meetings. Chow eventually replied, “Absolutely not.”
Council later voted to receive and file the letter that the families had submitted beforehand.
The next regular council meeting is Monday, Dec. 14.