City dissolving WRCC, moving forward with new plan
Photo of one area of the Welland Recreational Waterway.
The City of Welland has voted to dissolve the WRCC and have begun to move forward with a new plan. The recreational waterway will now fall under the domain of the City of Welland operations managed by the City’s Recreation and Culture Division. Staff from this division and Public Works and Parks will be taking over all the responsibilities previously done by WRCC staff.
In the regular meeting of Welland Council Tuesday Apr. 18, CAO Gary Long’s report was presented which outlined the proposal and the plan outline.
“The interim board of the WRCC has operated for the past year or so,” Ward Four Councillor Pat Chiocchio said introducing the motion and opening the discussion. “I think we have seen at council at an improvement in financial transparency and accountability.”
“We have involved the public and we have involved council in any decisions made regarding the WRCC,” he said. “Even, in 2016, we have seen a surplus of money.”
“What we have been operating for the past year-and-a-half, two years, this is what is being recommended here this evening, staff has done a marvelous job of working with council and the public,” he said noting that he fully supports the report.
“I don’t know where to start with this,” Ward Two Councillor David McLeod said. “It’s a four page document that suggests dissolving the WRCC which I am confused as to how we got here.”
“I attended the two public meetings,” he said. “They didn’t have that specific approach for discussion with the public none of the reports suggested that things go to where are they now.”
“The past WRCC boards worked to deliver community benefits, yes sometimes they ran a surplus, it was through their hard work that they got results,” he said.
“As far as transparency, they were here quarterly, we pummeled them,” he said. “They personally brought fourth budgets and they had honesty and integrity.”
He pointed out that the people were able to see what the operations of the various facilities were costing.
“If we melt it all into one pot, the taxpayer will no longer be able to see what the Welland Recreational Canal Corporation is actually costing the taxpayer,” McLeod said.
“That board was comprised of truly exceptional individuals from within our community providing guidance and an entrepreneurial spirit which helped drive it to where we are today,” he said.
“They helped build Canal Terrace, they helped build the Ampitheatre, the PenFinancial boating docks and facilities,” he said. “That was through their guidance and leadership. So if that kind of guidance, leadership and entrepreneurial push is not there in the future where will it come from?”
“Because ultimately the advisory board is trying to get the city to take their thoughts and wishes and make it happen as opposed to the other arrangement where we had an executive director who actually made it happen and the board held that person accountable,” he said.
“This council has run it for the past few years, you guys have done a good job,” he said. “But, keeping it going and to actually drive new community benefits are actually two different things.”
“So, I guess I am asking the CAO,” McLeod said, “‘How did we get to this point where we are suggesting that we no longer have the WRCC?”
With the Welland Canal bypass being built and opened in 1973, this created 12 kilometres of the waterway that were essentially being unused. In 1997, the federal government deeded this area called the ‘canal lands’ to the City of Welland providing a $12.3 fund for the maintenance of the lands. In 2007, the Welland Recreational Canal Corporation, a City of Welland Corporation, was formed to take over the operations and maintenance operations from the city. The WRCC board resigned after the executive director announced his retirement. The City of Welland took over the operations, forming an interim board and employing a corporate leadership team.
“As council know we have been going through a transitional period from where we formed a board of directors and got an executive director on board,” City of Welland CAO Gary Long said. “Since that time the interim board has been working with the corporate leadership team as well as us through the WRCC management.”
“We have gone through a period of reflection over the past sixteen months, what has worked, what hasn’t, identified the areas for improvement,” he said.
“So, I think at this point we have reflected on the transitional model we are looking at a lot of operational success, financial success and event success,” he said. “We are looking for ways to build on the success of last year for 2017.”
“There is continuity, stability, there’s optimism, and we feel that there are a lot more opportunities for the city to capitalize on the opportunities marketing the International Flatwater Centre and more importantly, the recreational canal,” he said. “We also think there is an opportunity for more of a strategic approach, a more integrated approach, because of what we are doing at the city and the marketing we are doing in terms of programming and all other amenities.”
“So this is an opportunity to consolidate what the WRCC is doing with what the City is doing and how we are moving forward as an organization,” he said. “We are very excited about this.”
“I have been sitting on this interim board for almost a year,” Ward One councillor Mary Ann Grimaldi said. “We have worked very hard, we went out and did governance, had meetings with the public within the city for governance options, came back with a hybrid model which has been accountable to this council 100% of the time.”
“We are not seeking money, we have not lost a nickel,” she said. “Staff has done a very good job.”
“I recall, I remember constituents screaming and yelling asking why we were using up this trust fund money, why they can’t do anything while their taxes are going up because the city had to reimburse more money to their (WRCC) budget because they can’t live on the interest from the trust fund,” she said.
“So, the fact of the matter is, I am personally appreciating what Councillor (Pat) Chiocchio has said, everything has been presented,” she said. I am 100% behind this. I think it is a wonderful thing that we are doing.”
“I think it is about time we move forward, get past this and start performing and doing what’s best for us all,” she said.
Ward One Councillor Mark Carl expressed concerns about what he considered lack of detail in the report.
For him the major concern was that there was not a budget included in the report and that he was being asked to take a giant step forward without all the details including who would be staffing the events, how they would be managed.
“Our constituents want to know about the details,” he said. “Dissolving the WRCC is a major decision for the community, whether this is good or bad, I just don’t know.”
CAO Gary Long replied that “I will provide assurances as your CAO that we have taken into account all day-to-day operations, what we are proposing in this plan has been operation for the past sixteen months.”
He also said that since the plan involved personnel changes he didn’t want to make the budget available to the public at this time.
“I think that consolidating our operations will get rid of a lot of overlapping services,” Ward Two Councillor Leo Van Vliet said.
He also asked to be assured that city staff would be able to discuss how much the operations cost if he asked in 2018 to which he was assured that the city will fully document all operating costs for review.
“This is serious business,” Ward Three Councillor John Chiocchio said. He recounted how it came to the point when the city had to step in after the WRCC board resigned after the executive director’s retirement.
“The city had to step in under council direction and took over the running of it, the people who are beholden to us, the people who give taxes to us, it has been run for the citizens since the city staff took over the operation,” he said. “There is no other way to run this organization. The Flatwater Centre should be run as a flagship operation for the City of Welland with direction from staff and council period.”
Ward Five Councillor Michael Petrachenko asked about how the new organization would affect grants.
City treasurer Steve Zorbas told council that the new model would present significantly different opportunities towards receiving grants, including where the city could be partnering up with user groups in grant applications.
Under the new plan an organization called the “Canal Foundation” will be set up to raise public donations and apply for grants.
In the end, the council approved the plan in a recorded vote won by a vote of 8 – 4. Councillors Mark Carl, David McLeod, Michael Petrachenko and Jim Larouche voted no for the plan, Councillor Tony Dimarco was absent from the session.
In a press release issued from the City of Welland on Wednesday Apr. 19, the key points of the new plan were highlighted:
- the Manager of the City’s Recreation and Culture Division will oversee the programming and events on the recreational waterway
- City staff from Recreation and Culture, and Public Works and Parks will be assuming responsibilities previously undertaken by WRCC staff
- the consolidation will result in net savings of close to $100,000 annually
- a Canal Advisory Board, with broad representation, will be established to provide advice and recommendations to Council
- WRCC offices located on Merritt Island will be closed and rented for commercial use to generate additional revenue
- the Canal Trust Fund will remain intact and the interest earned will continue to be used to offset operational expenses in maintaining the canal
- a charitable “Canal Foundation” will be established to raise public donations and apply for government grants
- the WRCC realized an operating surplus in 2016 and is on track for a balanced budget in 2017
- there were 35 events in 2016 on the recreational waterway, 34 events confirmed for 2017
- there are national and international championships planned for 2017, 2018, and other major competitions are confirmed from now until 2024
“Over the past 15 months, the City and WRCC forged a collaborative partnership that resulted in a positive transitional year, organizational stability, the successful delivery of 35 on-water events last year, a budget surplus in 2016 and balanced budget in 2017. These changes have enhanced communications, public engagement, strengthened relationships with user groups, and improved financial accountability and transparency in decision-making,” said Welland Mayor and Interim Board Chair Frank Campion in the press release. “By merging the WRCC with City operations, we can build on the success of 2016 and 2017 and support Council’s strategic priorities, which includes canal redevelopment and maximizing the potential of our recreational waterway.”
“We have the organizational capacity and the staff expertise to assume the responsibilities of the WRCC and integrate these to support the strategic direction of the city and vision for the canal,” said Chief Administrative Officer Gary Long in the release. “This consolidation will create synergies, costs savings, and a focused and integrated approach to how we maintain and promote our canal lands, our trail system, and the Welland International Flatwater Centre. It will also support residential and commercial development along the canal.”