Council has approved fee rate increases for our facilities, except for the golf course, for the coming year, although as always there are those who worry that people will be upset by having to pay marginally more to use city facilities.
I don't share those fears - I think that most people understand that when costs rise, whether for staff or fuel or heating, those cost increases affect how much it costs the city, and those who use city facilities need to pay a share of those costs.
But I did vote against the proposed increase, because I don't think that user fees, as currently calculated, don't include all the true costs of these facilities.
Our target for user fees is that they should cover about 40% of the costs of running the facility, recognizing that a certain proportion of subsidization is reasonable, because having these facilities is a benefit to the city as a whole, not just to those people who actually walk through the doors of the facilities. Unfortunately, the way this is currently calculated does not include factoring in the costs for long-term maintenance of these facilities, nor does it recognize that different facilities probably have different user costs, but we just do a flat across the board rate increase, and hope that will be sufficient for all.
It's kind of like thinking you can afford a house because you can manage the monthly mortgage payments, but forgetting to budget for such inevitable expenses as a new roof, furnace replacement, new appliances, or painting the wood trim. A sensible household budget includes setting aside money for such things, so that your budget doesn't run aground when these expenses come up, either as planned expenditures, or in an emergency situation, like if your fridge dies suddenly.
The way it happens now, user fees don't include setting something aside for inevitable costs of maintenance or repair, so the taxpayer ends up having to foot the entire bill for those costs. If we did have a maintenance reserve fund set up, perhaps we wouldn't have had to keep the waterslides closed this year - we could have funded ongoing maintenance out of a reserve developed by a budgeted piece of the user fee.
The only facility that is an exception to this is the Rawlinson Centre, where one dollar of every ticket sold is put into a reserve intended for capital improvements, such as upgrading the sound system. Unfortunately, this reserve wasn't kept for its intended purpose, but was used instead to balance the budget, but hopefully with more open financial operations for that facility, this won't happen again.
But it's a good indication of how simple the process can be. If you can calculate what an appropriate reserve should be for major maintenance expenditures on all our facilities, a flat rate could be added to each ticket from every facility, with a reserve set up that could be used for all facilities. Another option, although not quite a simple, would be to calculate a sensible reserve for each facility, and figure out what the appropriate surcharge would be on the user fee for that facility. That method would probably assess the users more fairly, but would be more complicated to administer, which also translates into additional costs for staffing.
I really don't care which method is followed - I just want to see us start thinking more about long-term maintenance of our facilities, and avoid the kind of difficult decisions that have to be made when the cost of fixing is beyond our budget, as happened last spring.
The other anomaly that I would like to avoid in future is this practice of determining user fees before we do the budget. To me, making financial decisions before the budget process is very much putting the cart before the horse, and it limits our flexibility at budget time. If during the budget process we find that costs for a certain facility are projected to be greater next year, we've missed our opportunity to add that to the user fee calculation, since I'm quite sure that most members of council won't want to revisit this particular discussion again within the same year.
But I know that change happens in stages. I'll be happy if next year, administration brings us proposed user fees that include long-term costs, not just the short-term. I would have no problem in agreeing to that kind of proposal.
"A budget is just a method of worrying before you spend your money, as well as afterward." - Unknown