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

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