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I’m part of a neighbourhood group called CELOS, the “centre for local research into public space,” whose particular interest is in parks and community centres. Three weeks ago we first heard that in this budget the city is counting on over $5 million more in user fees from people who want to use programs at community centres.
So we studied the budget after it became available last Monday. Today I want to point to three main kinds of problems with this budget, that we hope our city councillors will probe into.
The first problem in this document that I’d like to raise is: It contains numbers that seem to contradict previous budgets. For example: on page 20 there is a bar graph describing staffing growth in the ten years since amalgamation. The bar graph shows some city divisions that went down in staff numbers and some that went up. Parks, Forestry and Recreation is shown to have had 186 net new "approved positions."
But a study our group did about a year ago, based on all the city budgets from 1998 on – over the same period exactly as this graph on page 20 – shows that the total number of full-time equivalent positions at Parks, Forestry and Recreation increased by 787. So the 2008 city budget says 186 new jobs, whereas our research of previous city budgets comes to 787. That’s a very big difference. We hope the councillors will look into this large discrepancy, and will also find out if there are any other divisions where the numbers show similar inconsistency.
The second problem in this proposed budget document that I’d like to raise is: There are sizeable increased expenditures that are not listed. Here’s an example: there’s a plan to increase both the hourly wages and the numbers of zamboni operators at the city’s 49 compressor-cooled outdoor ice rinks. By our calculations, this new plan is about to add $250,000, per rink season, to the cost of cleaning the ice. But we could find no mention of this new expense in the Parks, Forestry and Recreation part of the proposed operating budget. There are other such omissions.
The third problem in this budget is that there needs to be much more detail about how the city gets extra revenue. To use a small example from my neighbourhood, at Christie Pits outdoor ice rink and swimming pool there is a community kitchen with a snack bar hatch. Some years ago, the city leased this kitchen to a private person who keeps it locked and unavailable for community use, for 9 months of the year, including all winter. During the skating season the leaseholder wants people to use his vending machines instead, but they’re almost always out of order. We’re not sure how much the city gets from that lease, but we’ve been told, maybe $1200 a year.
In contrast, at two other outdoor rinks near Christie Pits, part-time recreation staff have collaborated with our group this winter to start two very simple little snack bars. So far this rink season, these snack bars have brought in about $1500, which has been used to buy loaner skates, work with youth, and put on small wintertime neighbourhood events in a few more parks in the city. Which is the better way of getting revenue back into programming? That question needs to be asked for many other revenue measures proposed in this budget.
The city owns a great treasury of public spaces. In order for our public spaces to thrive, we all need to find out what works and what doesn’t. To do that, we need to know as much as possible about this whole enterprise. We also need to admit when we haven’t got enough information. This budget doesn’t give enough information, and so some remedies that are being suggested are likely to fail. We urge the councillors to look into the contradictions and omissions of which I’ve given some examples here. We urge councillors to help city staff find solutions better than some of those proposed here, better than the abolition of all priority centres, the broadening of income tests, and more increases in permit fees. CELOS has been collecting material for a few years. We’re now working on posting this material on our web site, celos.ca. If you want to find out the math behind the examples I’ve mentioned here, have a look.