Cost increase no surprise
At this week's budget session at city hall, councillors learned - not surprisingly - the costs to operate the new recreation centre are higher than expected. City staff initially estimated it would cost about $750,000 to operate the aquatic centre when it opens in 2018. This week, staff reported the operating cost, after expected revenues are tallied up, will be about $850,000. It is a significant increase.
However, it's not surprising in light of the way the cost of electricity has skyrocketed across the province. It's the principal reason, for example, why operating costs at Rotary Place have jumped almost 47% over the past five years. It's a cost that, for all intents and purposes, is out of the city's control. On top of that, city staff attribute the higher anticipated operating costs to the rising minimum wage that will impact the municipality's staffing costs at the new West Street facility.
Is it concerning? Absolutely. But as Coun. Ted Emond pointed out at the budget session, the city is using "conservative" numbers in estimating potential revenue. He believes the new centre, which he described as "the best north of the GTA," will be popular with citizens of all ages. "I think these (user) estimates are really conservative," he said. "But, we'll only known when the doors open. I ask my colleagues to have some patience. We've invested in this building. It's not going to go away."
For some in the community, it's reignited the debate about paying to use a recreation centre funded entirely by taxpayers. Many believe, simply, they should be able to use the facility and its amenities without forking over extra cash; they argue their tax dollars have already paid the freight. While there is some truth to that, it's an argument that doesn't really hold water. It's like expecting to use Rotary Place's twin ice rinks for free. It doesn't happen here; it doesn't happen anywhere. When it comes to those rinks, for example, ice time is billed to minor hockey, which passes those costs onto the players through registration fees. It's not cheap to play hockey or to figure skate. But those costs are, generally, taken in stride; they're expected.
Yet for some reason, some seem to bristle when prospective fees for the new municipal pool are mentioned. This undercurrent of outrage over user fees seems somewhat unique to Orillia, even though user fees for municipal aquatic centres are universal. Perhaps it's just because we've never had a municipal pool and have little experience with such facilities. But as city staff reported to council, this is the norm and Orillia's proposed rates are in line with other, similar-sized municipalities.
And let's not forget it's impossible to predict and project revenues for a new facility. Staff, correctly, presented conservative numbers, but it's likely use of the impressive new facility, which has been in demand for three decades, will be strong.
Having said that, Coun. Ralph Cipolla was right in encouraging staff to explore other revenue streams. He suggested, for example, a banking kiosk and an investment in marketing the facility for tournaments and other events - good suggestions worth investigating.
In Orillia, as in every municipality, there will be a cost associated with using the new aquatic centre. Frankly, it seems a small price to pay for top-flight amenities that doubles as a prudent investment in your physical fitness.