By Michael Boriero - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A simmering debate over the future of a fire hall development project is coming to a head in Stanstead Township with a referendum deadline set for later this week.
Residents have been asked to participate in a mail-in vote that kicked off on Oct. 8. The last day to submit a vote is Oct. 25, but with no mail distributed over the weekend, Mayor Francine Caron Markwell urged citizens to send it by latest Monday.
“If I was in their shoes, that’s what I would do to make sure it gets there,” she said in a phone interview with The Record on Friday afternoon, adding that people can also use rapid mail services to ensure their vote is in by the end of the week.
The controversial project dates back nearly three years, Markwell explained, after Stanstead’s current fire hall was deemed an outdated workplace by the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST).
Town council submitted several project proposals, but residents pushed back over what they considered unnecessary additions and high costs. With their latest proposal once again facing opposition, Markwell and her council decided a referendum vote was the best option.
Residents have expressed displeasure over a multifunctional room attached to the fire hall construction project. The council is asking for $1.9 million in funds to build the new station, but people believe it could be more cost-efficient without the added space.
“The first use is for the firemen, but we said because we have a hall like that why not call it multifunctional, so it could be used for different things when the firemen don’t need it and somebody else can use it,” said Markwell.
The space will primarily be used for firefighter training sessions, she clarified. However, a group of residents has banded together throughout this referendum period, stating that the town could build a suitable fire hall without a multifunctional room.
The group opposing the proposed project believes if they eliminate the additional space, the town could save upwards of $900,000 in taxpayer dollars. But Markwell disagrees. She said an architect has already given an estimate of $325,000 for the multifunctional room.
And a resolution passed at the last town council meeting to make a bid for a $150,000 grant through the Fonds régions et ruralité (FRR). She is hoping that the extra funds will entice project naysayers. Despite all of this, she is nervous about the final outcome of the vote.
“I’m afraid of what’s going to happen, I’m afraid, I don’t know the reaction of the firemen. I mean people here should realize these people are volunteers and they don’t do that for the money,” Markwell said.
James McGregor is voting against the fire hall construction proposal. But the Stanstead Township resident said he has nothing against helping the firefighters, his issue is always with the multifunctional room.
“The firemen are all locals, they’re volunteers and they put a lot of time in and this whole thing, for them, I think it must be a bit discouraging because the present fire hall is totally unacceptable,” said McGregor.
The current fire station doesn’t have any indoor bathrooms, so no one in the area denies that they need a new facility, he continued. And if the project is struck down, according to McGregor, the plan is to join forces to create something everyone can agree on.
“We’re going to propose a tripartite committee of citizens, firemen and councillors to agree on what’s necessary and get it moving forward, if the ‘no’ wins. If the ‘no’ loses then we’ll go ahead with it,” McGregor said.
He has been living in the area for 18 years and the worst part of this vote, according to McGregor, is that its sowing seeds of doubt within the community. He also said that councillors Mary Cartmel and Louise Hébert have joined the ‘no’ side, creating a division on the council.
McGregor said that, even if they lose, the ‘no’ voters will
accept the result. But he is tired of the Stanstead council ignoring what he says is the people’s wishes. A multifunctional room attached to a fire hall could be dangerous, he added.
It can also be inconvenient for firefighters, McGregor said. If the room is being used by residents, it can lead to people blocking essential tools like fire hydrants and trucks. There are other spaces in the area that are perfect for multifunctional purposes, he concluded.
“There’s a lot of distrust in the community about why they’re doing it and what’s it really going to be used for, so it’s unfortunate for a small community because everybody is involved with everything,” he said.