Highlands East is facing decisions that are probably more difficult than any other municipality in our County.
It recently conducted a large-scale review of its buildings, many in need of significant repair. Based on a report, the municipality is convinced it has too many structures. Choosing whether treasured buildings, such as fire halls, get axed has proven timeconsuming and contentious.
It is apparent there is some will in the municipality to cut fire halls, probably in Highland Grove at least, despite some public outcry. But doing so is going to take an open, frank and brave dialogue that we have yet to see.
Highlands East has undoubtedly had its struggles communicating as it reviews fire halls and services. As acting fire chief Chris Baugham put it, the fire committee has been too preoccupied with “chasing rumours and covering our butts.” Firefighters and citizens have assumed the guillotine is already overhead from the get-go, when a 2011 report recommending closures was presented at the first fire committee meeting last March 11.
The backlash was swift, and the committee responded by tightening up and playing as close to the book as possible. It has since slowed to a crawl while it faces far more public scrutiny than any subcommittee in the County.
The municipality assured the public they have made no decisions and councillors are not inclined one way or another. They have played that tune ever since, even as more evidence comes forward hinting towards closures. The tune seems truthful.
But a new one will be needed soon.
Councillors are certainly not dismissing the idea of closing halls. The fire committee formally put it on the table before doing much evidence-gathering beforehand. A recent organizational review indicated some people in the municipality already think it is what should happen.
The inherent conflict in the municipal position, versus the direction this file appears to be moving in, has generated more distrust, atleast in Highland Grove.
But the municipality should not be faulted for exploring this topic. Finances are not unlimited and when you are dealing with communities this small and far apart, big changes may prove prudent. I doubt they would have undertaken this if the idea had no merit.
The mouth cannot continue to be at odds with the hands. Whichever people at the municipality think this is a good idea – and it is obvious they exist – need to give more of an indication as to why. As far back as June, before the fire committee had any substantive evidence before it, some in the municipality suggested closing one or two halls. They must have had reasoning or evidence to do so. Let’s see it already.
The municipality has appeared choked with fear over even arguing about the merits of exploring closing halls. But frankness about what challenges are driving this could go a long way. Something to really indicate why this gigantic headache is worth it.
Maybe we will get there, eventually. The municipality appears intent to show it has not put the cart before the horse, but that’s become increasingly hard to believe. If any pretenses exist, perhaps some should be removed.
At the end of this road, when we probably get a public meeting on this, however long it takes, we will get more answers. But if closures prove to be the right idea, how is anyone in the public supposed to buy-in if nobody was ever willing to stand up for it along the way?