Sunday, January 19, 2014

Some Thoughts on a New Leisure Centre

One of the things that the mayor mentioned during the State of the City address last week was his dream for a new leisure centre.  This would be something similar to the wave pool in Melfort, I believe - a family-oriented pool centre that could include various leisure opportunities.

I've said before that I understand the value that such facilities bring to the quality of life in a community.  It's great when a community has places where citizens can go for recreation, whether it be a rink, a pool, a skateboard park, or a concert venue.

But I'm also a firm believer in living within our means as a city.  I didn't live here when the Comuniplex, now the Art Hauser Centre, was built, so I don't know what sorts of assumptions were made as to how the ongoing functioning of the building would be funded.  I do know that it now costs the city $600,000 annually to make up the difference between what it earns and what it costs.  I did live here for the construction of the Rawlinson Centre, which wasn't going to cost tax-payers a cent, but unfortunately operating it costs the city $450,000 every year.  And our most recent gift to ourselves, the soccer centre, runs a $450,000 deficit annually, and we haven't even finished paying for the construction yet - tax-payers will be paying construction costs for that building as part of their taxation bill until 2015.

User fees for these buildings are supposed to cover 40% of operating costs.  It's important to remember, though, that none of the above mentioned facilities include water when those operating costs are calculated, so the amount covered by user fees is actually less than the 40% - taxpayers are making up the difference.

From what I'm hearing from city residents, there isn't much appetite for bringing yet another facility on board.  Citizens have learned over the past few years that raising money for construction of a facility isn't hard - operating a facility so that it pays for itself is the difficulty that we haven't solved yet.  Adding another half million or so to the tax bill every year isn't something that people are willing to do right now.

Before we start spending a lot of time looking at the next thing that we want to buy, let's spend some time figuring out how we're going to do a better job of getting our current facilities to pay for themselves.  I think that the idea of higher user fees for users from out of town, who don't support the facility through taxation, is worth looking at.  I know that the argument that those from out of town like to make is that they buy groceries and restaurant meals here, which is fine, but taxpayers buy groceries and meals too, and in any case, that money does not go into city coffers.  Including all costs for a facility in the user fee calculation would also help spread the costs more fairly.

As I've said repeatedly, it's like spending your family's money - you take care of the needs first, then the wants.  But even with the wants, you have to set priorities.  When I built our new deck two years ago, many people suggested that a hot tub would be a nice addition, and even pointed out where on the deck it could go.  It would be nice, I agree.  But we decided that it's a luxury, both in the initial cost, and in the ongoing operational costs, that just isn't in our budget right now, and it isn't likely to make it there in the near future - too many higher priorities on the list.

It's nice to dream about what would make the city better, but we need to get serious numbers for our dreams, and not move too far without figuring out which parts of our dreams are affordable.  In the meantime, let's continue to make some headway on our needs, like tackling the infrastructure deficit, and keeping the streets plowed - those are the basics that benefit everyone.

"Rather go to bed without dinner than rise with debt." - Ben Franklin

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