A few years ago I compared the way the city spent money to a household that spends its money impulsively on toys like big screen televisions, then is surprised when there is no money to fix the roof. I was referring to our collective fondness to load up on recreational facilities at the expense of the boring and mundane business of maintaining basic infrastructure.
The last big example of this was the soccer centre - built without any idea of how much it would cost to run. But we have other such facilities - the Rawlinson Centre, the waterslides, the Art Hauser Centre. All of these are great facilities, I agree. I also know that they cost the city ever-increasing amounts of money to run and maintain, and we have a reluctance to go into those potentially unpleasant details, not just in the deciding stage, but also after the fact. Just think of how long it took to get reports of where and how much the Rawlinson Centre was costing us on an annual basis.
And then when we have a situation like we did last year, when the waterslides had to be closed because they hadn't been maintained, people are shocked, and expect council to wave some kind of a magic wand to make the necessary money appear. We don't have a magic wand - we can only raise taxes, which isn't a popular move either.
So one of my constant refrains has been that before we decide to move ahead on any of these wonderful wants (not needs) we need to know what the long-term cost is going to be, and how it's going to be covered. Hand in hand with that, we need to have a plan that sets out priorities for development, so that the framework for the decision is already there, making the process clear and defensible.
However, rumours are always out there, about the next great thing - I'm sure you've heard about the Olympic-sized swimming pool, or the new hockey rink.
Last week, we were presented with a proposal for a beach volleyball court. The idea from the group of adults proposing this (yes, this time they won't be able to bring in a bunch of kids to sway our emotions), is that it would be located up by the soccer centre (able to take advantage of the free parking and the washrooms), and the city would, as always, pay for the ongoing operations and maintenance. Apparently they've raised half the money for construction, but want the city to commit to this before they raise the other half.
I understand that it would be nice to have the city pick up the tab so that a group can indulge in their favourite summer time activity. But, just as with the soccer centre, there's a tendency to overestimate the use this facility would get, and the potential benefit to the city as a whole. I'm particularly wary of the hype about bringing in tournaments, since we were promised that with the soccer centre, but not a single tournament has occurred over the last five years.
Not only do we need to have priorities set, we need to decide, as a community, what our capacity is for maintaining recreational facilities. We need to be realistic about the unfortunate fact that the costs of running things never seem to go down, but only up. There needs to be some onus on the users of these facilities to contribute more to their upkeep - people seem to feel that it's sufficient to donate to build a new facility, but I haven't noticed too many fund-raising campaigns to pay to keep the lights on and the power running.
It's all a matter of living within our means, and part of that is identifying the whole cost of the opportunities that are presented to us - just like when you buy a house, it's not the purchase price that is the limitation, it's the ongoing maintenance. Otherwise, you end up with a leaky roof.
"It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him." J.R.R. Tolkien