The last recourse of a faltering system is to put more resources into administering the failure and tracking those it’s failing.
This might describe the planned transformation of Toronto’s rec programs, which involves a shift away from free services for neighbourhoods in need to a citywide subsidy program based on income testing.
In the middle of the debate over T.O.’s operating budget, there’s no easy answer to the question of community centres.
Before amalgamation, downtown rec programs were free, and harmonization with suburban programs, which had fees, proved difficult. In the end, a compromise made programs in the megacity free at 21 priority centres.
Parks and rec saw some of the deepest post-amalgamation cuts, and today its budget shortfall is arguably second only to the TTC’s and planning’s. The way finances are or-ganized currently, community centre managers need to cut costs or raise revenue but would rather increase the programs on offer.
Under a plan titled Everybody Gets To Play (subtitled The Plan Whose Puns Write Themselves), by 2014 half of program costs would be covered by fees (currently they cover 30 per cent), and the priority-centre model would be eliminated. Some existing and new drop-in programs for youth would remain free.
All told, this would net the department $1.3 million – not so much windfall as pleasant breeze – to go toward increasing programs and doubling the income-testing program. (Council will make a final decision on the report March 3.)
Councillor Gord Perks told the committee that by putting free services behind a line of bureaucracy, testing constitutes a barrier that free centres don’t. “Perhaps your parents don’t speak English. Maybe they’re undocumented workers. Maybe there’s a substance abuse or mental health issue.”
Adam Vaughan agreed. “I question whether we want to put a toll gate up for children when the same council can’t seem to stomach them on highways.”
Perks makes another critical observation to me later. “If you go to a cost recovery model, you lose the understanding that there are benefits to all of us from recreation programs,” he says. “You will start losing political support for them.”
His experience with Masaryk- Cowan Centre in Parkdale, which functions as a de facto drop-in for marginalized groups in the area, moves him to defend the priority model. “Community centres are the core of how we reach many people,” he says. “They are our most important tool.”
Committee chair Joe Mihevc, who champions the proposed plan, worries detractors are getting caught up in symbols, not solutions. “If you approach this ideologically, you’re going to get stuck,” he tells me. “You’re going to get stuck on income testing or priority centres. But priority centres are not a fair system.”
He may be right on the last score. Big old Scarborough has but one bitty priority centre. Plus, the budget process means it’s hard to shift priority locations as demographics change.
Still, there may be quite a different way of conceptualizing what parks and rec is all about. Maria Augimeri told the committee, “Council hasn’t yet decided what ‘recreation’ means. At one point, recreation might have meant doubles tennis. That’s not what it means to me. In the 21st century, it means violence prevention.”
It could be argued that leisure activities should be bankrolled in part from the whopping p0lice budget. In some areas, good rec services ease the strain on police resources, so why shouldn’t they help fund it? And perhaps there’s a claim for some health department cash as well.
Obviously, the discussion is not going in this direction at the moment, even if it should.
And what everyone’s careful not to say is that the plan is a modest wealth redistribution program. Those who have would chip in a bit more for those who don’t.
On the other hand, it’s also a tax on the lower middle class. If you’re above the federally defined Low Income Cut-Off (LICO), you’d pay full freight for rec programs – even if you’re just barely hanging on to what you’ve got, as many around that watermark are.
That motivated many at a community consultation at the Wellesley Community Centre on January 16 to ask why there couldn’t be a sliding scale. That, of course, would mean even more intense administration. The parks department will already need a new software suite for income testing and an overhauled computer system to be compatible with it.
How much new revenue will go toward that software? Or subsidy administration? Or finer analysis of enrolment patterns? How much money will be spent on keeping better track of the money, in other words? That’s unclear.
At the Wellesley meeting, some young people worried that many low-income parents would be too embarrassed to apply for subsidies, and a few objected that there’s little community input in program design.
That last one was deemed “off-topic,” but if you’re looking to be more efficient, wouldn’t it make sense to make sure you’ve filing a need rather than making random offerings?
One attendee wanted to know whether fee increases would make private gyms more attractive. This was interpreted by staff as consumers aiming to compare the other “products” on the “market.”
I think of Perks’s point about the broader value of free services. Increasingly, parks and rec will not be in the service of providing, but in the business of convincing. You need people to sign up because you need (and under the current model it is a need, not a want) the revenue.
This will only become more the case as dependence on fees increases and the concept of collective giving, the idea of inherent value, is bled dry.
Rejoice that for the present your children can be active. But fear for the future, when they may not be generous.
AS THE FEES MOUNT
Proposed fee increases for rec services
Learn To Swim program, child:
2007: $48 2008: $58.32 2009: $64.15 2011: $77.62
Learn To Skate, child
2007: $27 2008: $32.81 2009: $36.09 2011: $43.66
2007: $43 2009: $57.47 2011: $69.54
From Improving Access to Recreation: Everybody Gets To Play