Falling farther behind the wages paid their counterparts in the other rural townships, Woolwich’s firefighters will get a seven per cent raise in each of the next three years under a budget given preliminary approval last week.
All told, the Woolwich Fire Department is looking at an operating budget of $2,274,921 in 2022, up 6.8 per cent over 2021’s budget.
Volunteer firefighters receive an hourly wage when they respond to calls. That rate is currently the lowest in the region, said fire chief Dennis Aldous during a special budget session of council January 13.
“It’s been a little while since we did a wage study and we found that we’re a little bit behind our neighbours, so we’re just trying to do a little bit of catch-up for them. We’re looking at doing an increase to our officer pay, which is the same idea, with the amount of work and extra work that they have to put in being considered a supervisor,” he explained.
The township had been trying to close the gap for the past few years, but were falling behind nonetheless. Councillors were on board with the attempt to level the playing field.
“I’d like to thank the firefighters for doing the job that they do, because we really rely on them – they get out all times of the day, all hours of the night and on weekends when everybody else is sleeping. They do an excellent job, so I don’t begrudge giving them a decent raise and bringing them up to the other area firefighters because of the job that they do for us,” said Coun. Larry Shantz.
Councillors had more of an issue with plans to renovate the Maryhill fire station, however.
The building has long been identified as being in need of upgrades, with initial cost estimates of around $700,000. That number has grown significantly, and even the $1.4 million in this year’s budget has been deemed inadequate, with construction estimates of around $1.7 million.
Given the growing costs, some councillors suggested a new building might be more cost-effective.
“That cost blows me away because they put up a new fire hall in St. Clements for $1.3 million. I realize that’s a couple of years ago and prior to COVID, but I just can’t see spending that kind of dollars to repair a facility,” said Shantz.
There’s been a large increase in construction prices that have driven up costs, noted acting facilities manager Thomas van der Hoff.
“For reference, pre-pandemic construction costs for a new fire station build were approximately $250 to $300 a square foot whereas the norm in 2021 is $500 per square foot. In anticipation of the rising cost, staff did opt for cost saving measures throughout the design of the building wherever possible and not detrimental to the operations,” he said, noting the price hikes are behind the current $300,000 to $400,000 budget shortfall to carry out the renovations.
The prospect of cutting corners was something of a red flag for Coun. Patrick Merlihan, who noted cost-saving decisions made at the Woolwich Memorial Centre led to a host of problems that are still being remedied at great cost.
“I would just have a word of caution and just say WMC. That’s what happens when we cut all sorts of costs and here we’re replacing half the items in the WMC within the first couple of years of it being built. I would hate to see that be part of this project,” he said.
Shantz remained unconvinced a renovation would be more cost-effective.
“Whenever we’re renovating old and the cost is that close, it just scares me that we’re doing the right thing. The fact is that if you do new then you can design it the way it should be designed rather than patchwork,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m interested in spending $1.7 million on something that we could put brand new up for $2.1 million possibly; it just doesn’t work in my books.”
Van der Hoff argued the renovation is almost a new build given how little of the existing structure will be retained. “It’s almost a new building.”
Aldous said the department is ready to move ahead with the long overdue renovations.
“We need to do something, and it’d be nice that we can go forward with this project to give them the upgrade that they need there.”