The good ship operating budget seemed to have caught a fine and balanced wind until last week’s stowaway was discovered: a 21 per cent rec centre rental fee increase.
During all the feel-good consultations around increasing rec program fees, we were clearly assured this kind of rental fee (paid by hockey teams, etc) was not on the table.
A week later – oh, ha ha – here it is. The mayor, maintaining he knew nothing about this furtive increase (and faces of some budget committee members during the parks review indicate he wasn’t alone, if what he said was true), pledged a review.
It turned into a major retreat: the Everybody Gets To Play plan, which would have increased the cost of rec classes by up to 30 per cent, imposed means testing and killed the 21 priority areas where classes are free, is no more.
The plan was nixed by the budget committee, which now proposes that both rec permit fees and classes be increased by no more than 8 per cent and free priority centres be maintained.
And to balance a budget now missing over $4 million in anticipated revenue, the committee has gambled on an even more precarious economic balance: assuming the projected 2008 welfare caseload will be 2,000 fewer.
While Torontonians generally can’t muster energy for full outrage, grunts of contempt are being levelled at council for pulling a fast one by slipping in that 21 per cent hike.
Perhaps it’s not unanticipated that the kerfuffle occurred over the parks and rec budget. The sudden backpedaling suggests something was amiss this year – or maybe for some time. Past budgets show the department’s revenue below projections every year since amalgamation – over $2 million below last year. It hasn’t worked so far; why would it work now?
Before the decision to make up the $4 million shortfall by praying there’d be fewer folks on welfare rolls, budget members were treating the parks budget like some crisis document. “I’d like to take a look at the whole operation,” said budget chief Shelley Carroll. “I’m not satisfied that we really have a sufficient handle on what it’s costing us.”
Still, it’s never been hard to find councillors who think the whole cost recovery strategy through fees is doomed. Just how much extra money is needed to keep tabs on how much extra money would be made?
Kyle Rae sure is skeptical. “When Herb Pirk was commissioner of parks [in the pre-amalgamation city of Toronto], he wouldn’t charge for rec, because he said the cost of creating an administration to collect fees, to monitor them, to audit is too great,” he says. “It’s not worth it.”
Though Rae says the prevailing attitude in council is that families should pay for their own rec programs, he doesn’t subscribe to it. “The city used to provide them for free. There are two camps: the old city of Toronto people and the suburban people [who are used to paying]. And there’s a crisis.”
Feel a shiver? That’s the shadow of amalgamation passing over us again.
Joe Mihevc, who passionately defended the now-defunct Everybody Gets To Play increases, points out that since the arrival of the megacity, simple-sounding calls for 1 per cent cuts across departments have often translated into 10 per cent cuts in parks – mainly because, unlike other large city-funded services that are provincially mandated and have cost-sharing elements, parks and rec is entirely the city’s baby.
“Parks and rec is probably the biggest area that is us,” he says.
But there are more amalgamation ghosts. As Carroll says, the whole idea of groups renting space from community centres is a relatively new one. In the pre-1998 city, groups could use rec venues free, but in the burb cities folks had to rent school facilities for team sports.
“Most of the people who are coming to community centres used to go to schools,” she says. But the Tories have made the board of ed circle the wagons, and the price of renting space in schools has got very expensive.
The bottom line is that suburban rec services need to be increased, and the culture there is to pay for them, unlike in the old city. “We have to reweave a lot of relationships,” says Mihevc. “The megacity put us in shock.”
But besides all this is the question of whether the city is building more parks than it can actually service. New public spaces result from Section 37 agreements – parks built by developers to offset building higher than zoning allows – and parks on the waterfront spurred by city-owned corporation TEDCO, which funds itself.
So if there’s a political reluctance to make user fees pay for parks and rec expansion, what’s the solution for this year?
“We’re told there’s going to be uploading,” Rae says. “I think it’s a great opportunity to reallocate the funds in 2009.”
What he means is that if the province takes more responsibility for its mandated services – TTC, welfare, public health – there will be more cash for the unmandated ones.
“[We can] put the money back here in rec,” he says.
But what if the uploading isn’t as much as expected?
We can get a glimpse of one possible future from a recent parks and rec change. Not too long ago, the department was restructured and a number of finance staff charged with administering fees were replaced by parks personnel.
Says Carroll, “The person actually handling permits, taking care of space, didn’t really have any connection to recreation and what was happening there,” said Carroll.
Interesting point. Can we extend the notion and suggest that there might be savings in a strategy of localization, where front-line park staff and users are given more control?
“There’s too much management,” says Rae. “Let the rec people run the rec centres. You get all these back-of-house people making up policy to justify their existence. What have we got? We’ve got a mess.”
Kyle Rae on parks crisis: