Sunday, December 11, 2011

Are Our Facilities Making Us House-Poor?

As a city, we've invested in some pretty nice facilities. And we continue to do so, at continually increasing costs.

Our rationale goes something like this - these facilities make Prince Albert a better, more attractive place to live, and thus help attract new residents. New residents equals population growth, which should mean an increased tax base, which should mean that we have more revenue to help pay for these facilities.

There's another line of reasoning that says that we need to have these facilities so that our children will have a place to play a sport, or perform, or learn a craft - you probably remember the refrain of "It's for the children" that was repeatedly chorused during the fund-raising for the Rawlinson Centre, and I certainly remember the horde of youthful soccer players that came to a City Council meeting to bolster the case for our investment in a new indoor soccer facility.

And there are others who will promote the development of new facilities with the idea that such facilities will pay for their own upkeep, because the demand to use such wonderful buildings will be such that the tax-payer won't have to pay anything for keeping the doors open.

I agree that having such facilities is one of the things that makes Prince Albert a good place to live. I agree that the city has to subsidize these facilities to a certain level, to ensure that they remain accessible to all residents. I'm sure that everyone has their own favourite facility which they would favour over others, if cuts were being proposed. A golfer would likely argue for funding to improve the golf course; a voracious reader might protest reduced hours at the library; a pottery person would want continued access to the kilns at the Arts Centre.

None of these individuals is right or wrong - each of these city facilities supports certain valid interests, as do the Art Hauser Centre, the soccer centre, the Rawlinson Centre, the Frank Dunn swimming pool, Little Red River park, and the Rotary Trail. Some city facilities are more accessible to a wider range of the population - all you need is proof of address to get a library card, and you don't need any special equipment to walk along the Rotary Trail. Others are pricier - an evening at the Rawlinson can cost more than $100 for a pair of tickets, and a golf membership is a major financial outlay.

Having such a wealth of facilities has proven to be costly for the city. The Rawlinson Centre, which was promoted as "not going to cost the taxpayer a cent", has actually taken a larger and larger chunk of the budget every year since it was built, and its costs have increased at a rate much higher than inflation. The Art Hauser Centre, although it's been around longer, also requires more and more money each year.

In a sense, we're house-poor when it comes to these facilities. We've underestimated the costs of running, maintaining and repairing them, and the result has been that other, more basic city services, such as road maintenance, have been falling further and further behind. These basic services affect all residents, and are a big factor when assessing the attractiveness of a community.

I think that City Council needs to follow a few standard principles when we're dealing with these facilities. We need to have complete financial reports submitted before we approve a budget item for any facility - we shouldn't bend (or ignore) the rules for anyone. We need to be able to see that the facility is being run as economically as possible, and that basic rules around expenditures are being followed. User fees should be set at levels that reflect the service being provided, and there should also be a fee differentiation between city and non-city residents, because the city resident is already paying for the facility through their taxes.

And the next time that someone comes to us with an idea for a new facility, let's ask a few tough questions before jumping on board. For instance, is the facility a need or a want? Is it just a Cadillac version of what is already available? The Rawlinson Centre is a great facility, but the fact is that it wasn't needed - dance recitals and play performances were going on in other buildings not owned by the city. In fact, the cost of rental has put it out of reach for local theatre groups, who still use school gyms for their performances. Granted, there are more entertainment options available now, but these are not necessities, and the building is dark more evenings than not, so its operational costs aren't being covered. Another question that should be asked - will this facility be accessible to a wide range of residents, or will the cost of getting in make it only available to a fraction of our citizens? We shouldn't be in the business of subsidizing the recreational options of those who can afford to cover the costs themselves.

Like any home buyer, we have to look at the full costs of ownership before we buy what may be more house than we can afford. We make decisions that affect all city residents, and it's not fair to them to keep going back for more and more money, just because we decided that we deserved to have the best of everything, right now.

"A moderate addiction to money may not always be hurtful, but when taken to excess it is nearly always bad for the health." - Clarence Day

1 comment:

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