WHITEMOUTH -- A year ago, it was such a feel-good story.
Eight rural landowners showed the old can-do spirit and raised $290,000, 80 per cent of it out of their own pockets, to rebuild a little bridge that would connect them to the town of Whitemouth again.
Council was for it. The people seemed all for it. The project was set to move ahead this spring.
Then a groundswell started to push the other way. In addition to the $290,000 raised, another $770,000 came from the federal Disaster Financial Assistance program for flood damage dating back to 2010.
But that still left the bridge, which would span the Whitemouth River on the east side of town, about $500,000 short. At least some portion of that would have to be paid with municipal tax dollars.
Some people started to balk. A group of seven, led by former reeve Glen Malkoske and including some of his former councillors and another former reeve, formed an opposition. They funded a mail-out to every ratepayer criticizing the bridge as an expensive vanity project for the benefit of the eight homeowners.
"The main thing is the bridge services eight homes. That's all. For us, it's certainly an issue of cost benefit," said Malkoske.
"These people have a more convenient route into Whitemouth. It takes about 10 minutes to take the route around. When compared to how far the rest of people are away from Whitemouth, it's not something that unduly inconveniences them."
People say the community, about 100 kilometres east of Winnipeg, is now divided.
The bridge isn't just about the eight landowners but the town's connection to the country, say townspeople who support the project. Whitemouth is bracketed on the west side by a busy Highway 44, which isn't conducive to cycling, hiking, or walking the dog -- things people used to do over the former Water Street Bridge when it was still up a decade ago.
For other people, the bridge provides a shortcut to work or to see friends. "I can't think of a community in Manitoba that's along a river that doesn't have a bridge," said Whitemouth chief administrator Laurie Kjartanson.
As well, the almost $300,000 in donated funds, and the almost $800,000 from the federal DFA, will be lost if the bridge reconstruction is killed, say bridge proponents.
Malkoske admits that may be the case, but he has never seen anything in writing to that effect. He doesn't believe the DFA money should be spent on the bridge. Malkoske accuses council of misleading the Emergency Measures Organization into letting it to use DFA money on the bridge. Malkoske has filed a complaint to the provincial ombudsman on the issue. He is still awaiting the ombudsman's response.
The DFA money was intended for a spot of gravel road that slumped on the north end of Rice Road in the 2010 flood. An engineer's report said it would cost $1 million to stabilize. But the engineer couldn't guarantee it wouldn't slump again.
So council just patched and widened the road there and diverted the DFA money to the bridge at the south end of Rice Road. Reopening the bridge would help lessen traffic on the repaired road slide.
"We didn't mislead DFA or EMO. These are smart gentlemen who deal with flood mitigation throughout the province. We couldn't mislead them," Kjartanson said.
You might think the controversy has made Whitemouth's council jittery, especially heading into a municipal election year. Not at all. This week it unanimously passed a motion to press ahead with the bridge, contingent on getting some money from the annual $2-million provincial bridgework fund, which is managed by the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.
The council has been applying to the fund for three years, and is optimistic it will receive some funding this year.
That, along with some money in reserve, may allow the bridge to be built without even borrowing money, said Reeve Allan Kropelnicki. It will result in no tax increase, he promised.