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It was about a month ago that a CBC article arrived in my news feed. It said that one third of Canadians live paycheck to paycheck. It stunned me, although I wasn’t surprised. I don’t think that Parry Sound has any reason to believe that its residents are any better off.

A Thought Experiment

Let’s take a family in Parry Sound with two children. Let’s assume that they rent and pay $1,000 per month not including utilities. That’s not an unreasonable estimate for an apartment big enough for two or three children. Rent represents a large portion of their disposable income. Let’s also assume that a pool is built in a multi-municipal partnership and as a result Parry Sound taxes go up by 2%, a best-case scenario. That means the landlord’s taxes will go up and be passed on to tenants. Let’s assume it’s a simple 1% rent increase to cover the cost of the tax increase. A landlord has more than taxes as part of expenses. This family now is paying another $10 per month or $120 per year to support a municipal pool. If they want to use the pool they need to find another $1,000, or a month’s rent, to pay for a family membership at the pool. Can they swing this? Not if they are living paycheck to paycheck.

A Pool for Exactly Who?

Exactly who is a municipal pool intended to serve? Well, it will obviously only serve those who want to swim and have the resources to get to the pool. That’s not everyone and it may not even be a majority of residents. A pool will also serve only those who can afford a pool membership. That further shrinks the ‘pool’ of users. Everyone else will be helping to subsidize the pool for those who want to swim recreationally or competitively, are able to access it, and can afford it.

Actually, it will be only a tiny minority of people who use the pool. Any pool will operate much like a commercial gym. Gyms price their memberships to entice people to buy in, realizing that it will only be a small percentage who actually use it regularly. Most gyms are unable to properly serve all of the people who have paid for a membership if they were to show up regularly. The net/net is that the gym owner makes a profit and the people who actually use the facility are paying less than they really should because of the effective subsidy of others. In this case of a pool all taxpayers are being asked to cover the cost for what will be used by only a few. According to StatCan there are 16,000 people living in the municipalities considering participating in a pool. How many of these can you fit into a pool at one time? Or in one week?

Don’t believe or like this line of thinking? Here is a link to an article in the Washington Post that discusses the business of gym memberships. They note that one gym has 6,000 total members but only capacity for 300. That sounds about right for a pool, but with a 16,000 to 300 ratio.

All-Star Game – Magic Johnson to Darryl Dawkins for a Dunk

There is the point being made that a pool would help with the recruitment of medical professionals to the West Parry Sound Health Centre (WPSHC). That opinion was made clear a couple of years ago when the CEO of the WPSHC made a presentation of Parry Sound Town Council. After the presentation the Parry Sound CAO soft lobbed a question to the CEO asking if a pool would assist with recruitment. Like a Magic Johnson pass to Darryl Dawkins at an All-Star game, the CEO grabbed the alley oop and not only slammed it home, he broke the backboard. Beautiful. And like any All-Star Game it really didn’t make any difference.  A pool can make a difference in recruitment, but ….

Is it enough? Can a pool really make a difference? It’s an 11-million, or even 20-million-dollar bet.

Talking to others I have come to understand that perhaps the biggest reason recruitment is an issue may not be the lack of the pool, but the lack of good opportunity for two career families. Heck, it’s a problem for all families thinking of moving to the Parry Sound area, not just physicians. A physician may be married to a lawyer, or a chartered accountant, or an engineer, or a biologist, or a management consultant, or …. How easy is it for both adults to find good career advancing jobs in the Greater Parry Sound Area?

There is also the issue of educational resources. You have seen the local academic scores. Health professionals are presumably competitive academically, and probably want the best learning environment for their children. That means children learning in an environment where it is not only the teachers that challenge them, but also other students with similar goals and advantages. Do we have magnet schools for the musically or scientifically gifted? Rosseau Lake College is excellent, but as a private school has its own set of pros and cons for a parent to consider.

It’s perhaps better for physicians or top medical professionals to work in an urban centre and provide their families with all of the available benefits and cottage in the Greater Parry Sound Area. Win-win. Weekdays, a vibrant multicultural urban centre, access to educational resources, a local church, synagogue or mosque, and of course a pool and much, much more. Weekends, the relaxation and connection to nature on a lake or river in the West Parry Sound area.

Perhaps that too negative. It’s possible that a pool can help with medical professional and executive recruitment, but it needs to be part of a larger recruitment plan. Let’s see the plan.

It All About Access

How do we make a case for a pool recognizing that at this point it is largely the pet project of a relatively limited number of folks wealthy enough to take advantage of it?

The answer in my opinion is to make it accessible to children, through a school program. That doesn’t necessarily mean attaching it to the new ‘super school’. I understand that there is no room, and more importantly no budget. That’s okay. If we want the pool to be part of the community, we need to introduce children to it. Even if they only get a dozen dips in a school year it is an important experience that might have lifelong implications, and one they would not have been able to enjoy otherwise. There may be a future Olympian waiting to have their potential revealed.

That family who saw their rent go up $120 per year because of a new pool might be okay with the increase if their children we able to use the pool without any additional charge.

Lessons of the Bobby Orr Community Centre

Let’s not use the Bobby Orr Community Centre model as a template for a municipal pool. At this point the taxpayers of Parry Sounds subsidize the BOCC to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars per year. Beyond its use for meetings as well as community and private events the BOCC is primarily used as an ice rink. But as an ice rink its use is pretty much limited to organizations who pay for ice time. The organizations who pay for ice time play an important role in subsidizing the BOCC expenses and are given top priority in terms of ice time assignment. This results in other taxpayers, casual skaters, having very limited use of the facility, sometimes depending on the Mayor or Tim Hortons to cover the cost of a free skating period. People do have access to free skating at the Kinsmen Park, but that depends on the weather and the contribution of volunteers. Let’s not hope that a municipal pool would, like the Bobby Orr Community Centre, be limited to those who pay a premium or participate in programmed content while all others are relegated to Waubuno Beach, and subject to season and weather.

If a pool is a municipal resource that is subsidized by the taxpayer, the taxpayer needs to have access. A pool cannot become a resource that is reserved for those who can afford to pay more or are willing to participate in structured programs. Structured programs, swimming lessons and swim club, will be necessary, but shouldn’t preclude regular casual public access.

Concluding Comments and Suggestion

Building a pool for the right reasons and with the financial involvement of the neighbouring municipalities can make sense if it is done for the right reasons with a plan that encourages use by all. Or at the very least doesn’t create any artificial barriers.

How about we forgo any basic user fees and make it free to all municipal residents? Add in another $300,000 to the annual expense line that might come from user fees and spread the cost among the communities. You pay just a very little bit more in your taxes but that’s all it costs to access the pool unless you use the programming. That family with two kids could then afford to go for a Saturday morning swim in the middle of January.

There is an election coming up, let’s put it to the voters to decide. Let’s not leave the decision up to a few dozen individuals who raise enough fuss that they get their way. That has worked too well in the past, perhaps not to the benefit of the larger community. In Parry Sound the squeaky wheels, as long as there are enough of them, get the budget. Let’s remember the many folks who live paycheck to paycheck when we look at how tax money should be spent.

That’s it for me on this topic. I may chip in with some comments at some future point. I will be interested in watching how this initiative progresses. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

(Disclosure: I can afford my portion of any tax increase that is part of a joint municipal pool initiative. I can also afford a $1,000 per year pool membership.)