County council divided over AGRIM situation

“It’s not a blame game, it’s purely economics.” Paul McLauchlin

Once again, Ponoka County councillors ended in a dispute while discussing the funding options available to the Rimbey AGRIM Centre and Ponoka Calnash Ag Event Centre.

A lengthy debate, which erupted during the council’s March 21 budget meeting over where grants should be given and where not, was picked back up during their regular council meeting and budget approval process, March 25.

Members of council are unsatisfied that construction had begun on the AGRIM building before every funding dollar to get it to a useable state was in place. County CAO Charlie Cutforth was recently informed it would take another $1.5 million to bring the building to that stage.

“And then of course (it’s) going to be an ongoing thing, just as the ag centre here is an ongoing thing. These projects, when they start, they’re never finished. As soon as they get some more loot, or they’re successful, there’s always something they can enhance,” said Cutforth.

The Rimbey Agricultural Society has contracted a consultant to update both the business and capital plans, which are to be available to council in two to three weeks, says Cutforth.

Although Cutforth said nothing had been officially signed between the Rimbey Agricultural Society and other organizations, he told council they have some large donors involved in the project.

“The county has a large investment there, we’ve contributed $1.2 million to date. I think there’s some expectation to see it finished,” said Cutforth.

Helping the AGRIM Centre reach a usable state is a top priority for 2014, for the county. Once the budget was approved council had come to the conclusion that $1 million would be available to them as long as specifications set by the county were met, including viewing the business plan and them having the other half a million dollars in place.

“We have a request from the Ponoka ag centre to put the cover between the two buildings, that was always planned,” said Cutforth. He feels, now that the Calnash Centre is up and running, and has been or a while, the county’s obligation to provide major grants is done. This request, which Coun. Doug Weir says would take $1.5 to $2 million, was deferred to 2015 budget discussions.

Reeve Paul McLauchlin also feels the county’s major contributions to Ponoka’s ag event centre are over since the operation is now sustainable and making a profit.

“From a funding perspective I think the tap is turned off. We need to reprioritize to other projects.”

“I don’t think we can do the Rimbey (project) with the kind of dollars Charlie’s talking to, either, until we get a proposal exactly knowing what they’re doing. I’m not prepared to give them $1 million bucks, because our money’s capital, right,” said Weir.

He was convinced the funds given to the Ponoka Ag Event Centre Society (PAECS) for the Calnash Ag Event Centre hadn’t come from the county’s operating money, although Cutforth told him that was indeed the case. “Depends how you argue it, but it came through MSI (Municipal Sustainability Initiative) money and all that kind of stuff,” said Weir.

“It was because of the MSI grant program that the county suddenly had that kind of money available to share with others,” said Cutforth.

After funding sources were straightened out, Weir told the county he wanted to next look at the percentage of total costs for the projects that the county was contributing. “I want to know why this thing went from $3.34 million to $5.9 million.

McLauchlin informed him the same thing had happened when the Calnash Ag Event Centre was in its unfinished stages. “But they added a lot more,” Weir argued.

“To me, this building (Calnash) is up and operating and from what I understand made a profit last year. The one in Rimbey, if it doesn’t go ay further, it’s a giant cold storage covering,” said Coun. Bryce Liddle. In response, Weir asked him if that was the county’s fault.

“It’s not a blame game, it’s purely economics,” McLauchlin explained.

Weir told his fellow councillors he didn’t want to pit one agricultural centre against the other and he understands each deal made with the buildings is handled separately. “If we don’t want to fund, put any more money into the PAECS building, that’s fine. I mean, that’s council decision. If I decide I don’t think we should put any more money into the AGRIM, I’ll be outvoted. I’m more than prepared to vote for it if they can show us the proposal.”

The county’s cash commitments to date, for the Calnash Ag Event Centre, total $3.2 million. The work and services contributed total approximately another $500,000.

Cutforth feels there’s a shortfall between the county’s contributions to each ag centre and has told council several times they have an obligation to help the AGRIM reach a useable stage.