A constituent phoned me the other day. He had sat through the entire July 23 Corporate Services meeting (brave man!) and pointed out that we took almost as much time fussing over cuts to various garbage programs that might save us $50,000, as we did to agree to almost $1 million for Recreation. Damn if he wasn’t right. I shake my head at myself.
The partial reopening of SCRD recreation facilities proposed by staff on July 23 (page 33 of this agenda), would find us ending this year with a $1 million deficit for Recreation. To be clear, that’s ON TOP of the $5.2 million we budgeted, and translates to a 5% increase on your 2021 property taxes, not including other increases we’ve already committed to. We haven’t even started the budget process yet and we are facing an 11% hike.
It’s fashionable in government these days to look at decisions through different “lenses”, so I’m going to try a few out here.
CLIMATE EMERGENCY – We just voted to save $6,700 by cancelling the 2020 Backroad Trash Bash which benefits the environment by picking up garbage. Instead we propose to reopen facilities that burn fossil fuels so that people can enjoy ice sports in a temperate climate. Those children who “need ice” are facing an bleak future of irreversible catastrophe if we cannot cut global GHG emissions in half by 2030.
Climate Lens: FAIL
SOCIAL EQUITY – Property taxes are considered regressive taxes because they are based on the value of your property, not your income. Many residents of Elphinstone are struggling to get by. They rely on precarious or low paid employment, or subsist on small pensions, while costs just keep rising. I am willing to raise taxes for essential services that 99% of my residents receive, such as drinking water and fire protection, but should I raise poor people’s taxes to pay for swim meets and figure skating?
Social Equity Lens: FAIL
FISCAL PRUDENCE – The SCRD faces huge costs to secure a long term water supply, and to close our garbage dump and come up with garbage solution 2.0, among other costs. (See The Five Horsemen of the Tax Apocalypse.) To the 800+ of you who phoned or emailed the SCRD to protest increases to your utility bills: bad news. They’re going to go up again. And again. Because the cost to deliver these essential services is soaring.
Meanwhile, Covid-19 has thrown our budget into disarray, changing the whole picture for Transit, Recreation and many other services. What’s worse, we have no idea what’s coming next. Second wave? Third wave? Global financial recession? We already pulled a bunch of money out of reserves to cover critical costs this year. Is it prudent to throw more money at non-essential public services?
Fiscal Prudence Lens: FAIL
PUBLIC HEALTH – Starting up recreation facilities under Covid public health measures means that we have to spend a lot more money (e.g. cleaning, contact tracing) to deliver programs that serve far fewer people (due to social distancing), and earn us far less revenue from fees and facility rentals. And at the end of the day we cannot guarantee public safety. Indoor activities involving vigorous exhalation (panting, shouting) are high risk for Covid-19. Indoor recreation is nice to have, especially in winter, but it isn’t essential and it could be a risk to public health.
Public Health Lens: FAIL
One of the very hardest things in local government is having to say no to a bunch of pleasant, organized, articulate and passionate people who come out to a meeting to advocate for a cause. So politicians, when put on the spot, keep saying yes, even when we know that we can’t afford to take more costs. Recreation users are a well organized lobby group. But the poorest people in our communities are not, and their voices are often not heard at our public meetings.
At some point we have to be brave enough to say no. No, we can’t afford to throw more money at a limited and very expensive restart of recreation facilities this fall.
What’s more, it’s time for this community to seriously rethink whether 30,000 people can afford to support three swimming pools and two ice rinks, particularly in the post Covid world.