Thursday, July 17, 2008

Like a Teenager Who Wants to Buy a Car

Sometimes Prince Albert reminds me of a teenager who wants to buy a car. You know, they get all excited because the car costs only $xxxx, which is exactly the amount that they have saved. They don't think of all the costs that go along with car ownership - licensing, maintenance, gas, oil changes, tires.... And they also don't think that most of these costs will rise, sometimes quite far, quite fast, as we've seen with gas costs over the past year. But to the teenager, they want the car, they want it now - and their sights are often set on their dream car, not on a vehicle with good mileage, or a reputation for reliability.

Prince Albert tends to be like that with our city facilities - we want the best, we want it now, and we don't think too much about how much that facility will cost in the long run - we'll just get mom and dad to cover the costs. Only in this case, the tax payer is mom and dad - that's us. In the meantime, some of our needs (street paving, maintenance of other facilities) get overlooked.

We already have the Art Hauser Centre, which runs an increasing deficit every year - this year, it's $600,000. We also have the Rawlinson Centre, built a few years ago with volunteer contributions (and a legacy from John Diefenbaker), but now increasingly unable to cover its operating costs, this year requiring a subsidy from the city of $300,000. And recently, some of the people involved in track and field in the city have raised concerns about the deterioration of Harry Jerome Track - in such poor shape due to lack of maintenance that they no longer can host provincial track meets here.

But instead of learning from these experiences, we're now building a soccer centre, without giving too much thought to how we'll pay to keep it running. Once again, the citizens of Prince Albert have been incredibly generous in raising money for this facility - so generous, in fact, that they raised more than was targeted. But, instead of putting this money aside to help pay maintenance costs, or relieve the tax payer of some of their burden, or save in case construction costs are higher than budgeted, the only plans that I've seen are to add new features that weren't covered in the original cost estimates - a climbing wall, a walking track. I wouldn't have as much of a problem if they were going to invest in improvements that would make it more energy efficient, so that future operating costs would be less, but that doesn't appear to be one of the options that they're looking at.

I know that it's nice to have great facilities in the city - they do make Prince Albert a nicer place to live, if you are part of the community that uses these facilities. We need to remember that not everyone goes to the Art Hauser Centre, or the Rawlinson Centre, or plays soccer. When these projects are started, I think that a bit more realism about the long-term costs of these projects should be part of the planning process, because those costs will, for the most part, be paid for by people who didn't volunteer to do so, and who won't get a tax receipt or their name in the paper - you and I, the tax payer. Our population base has been stable for the past twenty years - we're foolish if we're counting on some great increase in tax base to help pay for these increasing costs. If it happens, great, but we shouldn't be counting on it.

It's not pleasant to be the person who raises these concerns - you're called negative, it's suggested that by raising concerns you're insulting those people who have donated money. But I've heard from a number of people who donated money involuntarily, through their taxes, and I think that they would rather see decreased costs for them in the future, rather than a state of the art facility that will only be used by a minority of Prince Albert citizens. And as a councillor, mindful of the fact that this council has approved two consecutive budgets with increases of about 5%, I think that it's my responsibility to try to minimize future budget increases, not add to them.

"He who will not economize will have to agonize." - Confucius

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