Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Waterslides

The announcement this week that the waterslides need major maintenance work before they are safe to be used by the public, and may not reopen unless a community group or individual steps up with the necessary funds, was a surprise to many people.  Once again, council is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place - the demands on our financial resources far exceed our current tax levels, and increasing those tax levels to pay for everything that everybody wants, would place too heavy a tax burden on city residents.

It's starting to seem almost like the movie Groundhog Day - different facility; same story, unfortunately.

While I know that the waterslides are a fun and affordable day in the water for people, especially those who don't have a cottage at the lake (that would be most of us), it's not one of our more affordable facilities, since it's only used for less than three months of the year, and the user revenue isn't enough to cover the costs of having it open, staffed, and maintained.  And having it an outdoor facility means that the maintenance costs are higher - there's a reason why there are only two outdoor waterslides in Saskatchewan.

Part of the problem is that council wasn't made aware of the magnitude of the situation until this year - despite what may be alleged by anonymous posters on various websites, we were not informed of the potential safety issues until this year.

One way of preventing this situation from recurring with all our facilities, might be to have an annual report from each facility on what kind of shape it's in, what kind of regular or recurring maintenance is required to keep  it functioning, and what the cost would be.  We don't get anything like this at present, and I think it would be extremely helpful.

It's kind of like with your car or house - there are things that should be done on a regular basis, and you need to be aware of what these things are and what the cost is going to be so that you can put it into your budget.  Even with major expenditures like a new roof or a furnace, knowing the approximate lifespan of these things gives you the chance to build up savings to cover the cost, before it becomes an emergency.

The sad reality is that the waterslides may never reopen.  I think that for the investment required, we would be far better off to look into the costs of building a facility that can be used year-round.  The challenge will be figuring out ahead of time, not just how much the facility will cost to build, but how much it will cost to operate and maintain.  I know that this sort of thing isn't nearly as exciting, but it would prevent such unpleasant surprises in the future.  Just like the costs of fuel and maintenance should be considered before you buy a car, and you wouldn't think of buying a car that you could only drive for a few months of the year, we need to think of the whole picture before we invest in another facility.

"Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance." - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Margo Fournier Centre Problem

At last week's council meeting, we had many users of the Margo Fournier Centre show up to voice their concerns about the recent notification from the city to user groups that they may need to find alternative places for their various activities.  The notification wasn't something that had been directed by council, and it didn't say that the centre would definitely be closing, but was more of a heads-up.  And filling council chambers had the usual result - members of council voted to reverse the notification, even though it hadn't been a council decision.  However, the problem remains, and we're just getting a handle on its extent.

Council has been gathering information on the many, many buildings that the city owns and maintains, and it's no secret that we have more facilities than we can afford.  In our rush to provide residents with a good variety of recreational and sports facilities, previous councils didn't take the time upfront, before the decision was made to go ahead with yet another facility, to figure out the ongoing cost of maintaining these facilities in good repair, as well as the more boring necessities, like roads and clean water.

This is the inevitable result - our population is not increasing at a rate that can support all of these facilities.  Hard decisions have to be made, because we can't continue to support all of our facilities at the levels that people have become used to.

I appreciate the value that the Margo Fournier Centre brings to the downtown.  I think that there's great value in having a facility that people who work downtown can walk to on their lunch hour for fitness classes.  I realize that the attached Heritage Centre is a good gathering place for seniors, providing essential social opportunities.

I hope that the users also realize that their usage is heavily subsidized by the city - in other words, the tax payers.  Users need to recognize that the convenience of being able to walk to a fitness class on their lunch hour should likely carry a greater cost than five dollars a class - or even less, when you realize that people who have a monthly pass to the field house can attend any of the classes at the Margo Fournier Centre for no additional cost.

The other inequity that has been mentioned before, but needs to be mentioned again, is that many of the users of city facilities, including the Margo Fournier Centre, don't live in the city, so their cost is further subsidized, since they're not paying the taxes that city residents do.  I found it rather ironic that many of the people who signed the petition to keep the Margo Fournier Centre open had addresses from outside the city - they don't have to worry about their taxes going up to keep city facilities open and safe.  I certainly support having different user rates for non-city residents, to help make up the difference.

I also think that we need to include all costs of maintaining facilities when we set user rates for the public, and that includes utility and water costs - otherwise we're just perpetuating the inequities, and passing the costs on to the tax payers.  It also might end some of the misconceptions that certain facilities pay for themselves - this isn't true if all costs aren't involved, and at this point, they aren't.

I've had many interesting and positive conversations with some of the people concerned about the potential closure of this facility, and I have no doubt of their sincerity and appreciation for this facility.  I hope that in their continuing discussions with the various interest groups that they put forward alternatives that include establishing a fair cost rate for using the facility, and don't just hope that the current situation will continue.

And please, please, please, let's remember this the next time council chambers are filled with a crowd of people demanding that we need a new facility - we just can't have it all.

"There's no free lunch." - Milton Friedman

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Option to Save Tax Payers Some Money

Legislation has recently been changed that will allow the city to add unpaid water bills to the taxes for a property - an option that is currently under debate with council.  This problem usually happens with rental properties, when the tenant leaves without ensuring that all their debts are paid.  It also can be an issue with commercial properties that are leased  - the lessee does not always pay their bills either.

Part of the problem is that water bills are only paid quarterly, rather than monthly, so someone could move out of a property leaving the water bill unpaid, and by the time the bill is sent, the person who used the water is long gone, so shutting off the water to the residence isn't possible - someone new is likely living there now, and it wouldn't be fair to make them pay the costs for water that they didn't use.  Although the city tries to get repaid by using collection agencies, that doesn't always work, and eventually, the debt is written off.

This may seem like not that big of a problem, but it is.  The most recent amount that had to be written off, covering the last four years, was roughly $450,000 - not an insignificant amount.  When the debt is written off, then the rest of the tax base, those people who pay their water bills and taxes, ends up picking up the expenses that would have been covered by the unpaid debt.  And that's not fair.

I think that the solution made possible by the changes to legislation will make things much more fair.  The city will be able to add the amount unpaid to the taxes for the residence or commercial property, and the owner will end up paying.

I know that some landlords feel that this is unfair, as they didn't run up the water bill, or leave without paying it, and I can understand that initial reaction.  However, I also know some landlords that include the water bill in the rent, so that they don't have to worry about whether the tenant is paying the bill.  I also know that the landlord can write off such additional expenses as part of their business expenses.  I think that it's more fair than having tax payers eventually make up the difference.

I also think that moving to monthly billing for water will reduce the problem somewhat.  A bill that's only a third the size should be more manageable for those tenants who have to pay their own utilities directly, and the city should catch those who aren't paying more quickly.

In any case, I think that moving to this option, which will reduce the amount of unpaid money that the city ends up writing off will mean that we have more money to take care of our ongoing responsibilities of maintaining this city-run facility - one of our more crucial responsibilities.

"Credit is a system whereby a person who can't pay, gets another person who can't pay, to guarantee that he can pay." - Charles Dickens