COLUMN: Barb Gustafson — July 9, 2014

Barb Gustafson
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Barb Gustafson

A survey conducted for the Bank of Montreal and released earlier this year said that about one third of the people polled would rely on a lottery win to fund their retirement. Sounds ridiculous, right?

Yet that is the path that Prince Albert is taking when it comes to its infrastructure needs: relying on a lottery win.

I admire the initiative of the people behind entering the Kinsmen waterslides in a national contest for community recreation funding. They are taking action, which is more than is being done by our civic leaders or other citizens, including me. And, it’s great that enough support has been generated to move Prince Albert’s bid into the next round, securing $25,000 from Kraft at a minimum and bringing the TSN crew to our city for a broadcast as a part of the contest.

But let’s face it, this is a contest. It’s the equivalent of buying a lottery ticket, albeit one with better odds than most. Is that any way to run a city?

During the past two years, the taxpayers of Prince Albert have been told that our costs are way too high. We have too many building to look after, and not enough money to do what needs to be done. The Girl Guide Hall was offered to the Guides for purchase. Not surprisingly, as a charity group they could not afford to buy a building. The hall roof was repaired at city expense, but clearly someone failed in their duties because the Guides have now been told the building is unsafe to use, so they’re finding other accommodations and the city is left with an apparently now-unsafe, as well as expensive, building.

The Margo Fournier Center users were told to be ready to move out. In this case, there are no identified structural issues, just cost and low usage, according to statements from City Hall. The mayor has been quoted as saying a developer is interested in the property. Really? Because there’s a city-owned lot right across 12th Street from the Margo Fournier Center that has sat vacant for a decade.

The latest building to be on the firing line at city council is the one used by the local judo club. Arguments by the club for continuing to allow its usage are that the building costs very little in maintenance. So why would the city want it empty? Is there more to this story? Now we hear that the roof at the Alfred Jenkins Fieldhouse is already leaking, past its warranty date and will require more money from the city for repairs.

These discussions, along with the closure of the waterslides this summer and ongoing talks about the need for a new arena and new aquatic centre, point to the need for a recreational infrastructure plan. It’s clear, as council bumbles from one problem to the next, that they don’t have one.

There have been analyses done in the past and it wouldn’t take that much work to update them, or to put together some figures on what the usual taxpayer subsidy is for various facilities. I can recall from my time on city council, a decade ago, reports that showed aquatic facilities typically take the largest percentage of tax funds to operate, while golf courses -- as evidenced by their existence as for-profit enterprises -- can be break even or better, with the rest of recreational services somewhere in between. Our Community Services Department should be able to tell us what our facilities are costing us, and what they should be costing us, if asked by council to do so.

Then, it should be up to the people of Prince Albert to consider what facilities we want. Rather than highly emotional crowds of supporters filling up council chambers to make their pitch for a particular sport, let’s have some meetings. Or, we could do a survey. The Chamber of Commerce has offered to help facilitate discussions on recreational infrastructure, because businesses understand that having an array of community facilities is important in attracting people and business, but that those amenities come at a cost that needs to be reasonable. To my knowledge, the City has not taken up the Chamber’s offer.

Thus far in the term of this council, there has not been any formal effort to seek out the wishes of the people, just pronouncements from City Hall that build fear among users, and the general public. The closure of the waterslides, for example, doesn’t affect me directly, because my family isn’t in the age group that typically uses it. The closure of the waterslides does bother me, though, because there is no plan to deal with the problem and that is something I expect from my civic leaders.

Do we have too many buildings for the size of our population? What do they cost? How much are they used? What are our needs for the future? These are questions that deserve open, public discussion resulting in a plan for maintenance of current facilities, disposal of some properties if warranted, and saving toward construction of new ones.

It’s a bit like being 50 years old and having no money saved for retirement. You can throw up your hands, continue your current spending habits and maybe buy lottery tickets. Or, you can take responsibility for yourself and start now to create the best retirement you can afford.

Similarly, Prince Albert can’t go back in time and start saving when it probably should have done so. What we have is what we have, so let’s figure out where we go from here. There’s nothing wrong with entering lotteries or contests, but frankly, it’s not a real solution to personal finance, or civic finance.

 

Barb Gustafson is a lifelong Prince Albert resident and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Email: gustafsonba@gmail.com

Organizations: Prince Albert, Bank of Montreal, Margo Fournier Center Community Services Department Chamber of Commerce

Geographic location: 12th Street

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