In this post I examine the likely costs of a municipal ‘pool’ for the area. I don’t discuss the impact of any costs on individual municipalities in this post. the focus is on the likely costs to build and operate a pool.
I can assure you that any numbers I present will be wrong. I am not doing an in-depth cost analysis; that is best left to an experienced consultant. My estimates are based on figures I believe to be credible and reasonable. As appropriate, I provide links. That qualification of being wrong doesn’t mean you should dismiss the analysis if you disagree with it or embrace it unquestioningly if you agree. It’s an estimate and the basis for constructive discussion. Looking at the numbers also helps identify issues that are worth discussing and digging into. There will be two more posts on this topic so assume that the more obvious questions and implications of this analysis will be discussed in a later post.
Cost Estimates – Introduction
Building and operating a pool comes with four sets of expenses. The Build. Annual Operating Costs. Programming Costs. Reserve Fund.
There is also Revenue to consider, unrelated to property tax implications. That is discussed in this post as well.
I will toss out the number of $11 million to build a swimming pool. This is based on an article from 2013 concerning a pool being considered by the community of Exeter in Southwestern Ontario. The estimate for their pool was $9-13 million. I have taken the midpoint and ignored inflationary increases over the past 5 years. This is for an indoor pool, not an aquatic centre.
This seems to be a reasonable, albeit conservative estimate, in my opinion. I note that the Town of Parry Sound will be investing $1.2 million in the Stockey Centre just for new siding and a metal roof. A replacement of the ice surface at the Bobby Orr Community Centre also comes in at $1.2 million. The Stockey Centre cost $12 million to build in 2002, about $16.5 million in 2018 dollars. The retaining wall rebuild along Bowes Street cost about $200,000. This was the replacement of an existing wall that was less than 100 metres in total length and varied from ground level to no more than 2.5 metres in height. Things are remarkably expensive when you start moving earth.
It’s possible to lowball costs and take a cheaper path, but that always comes back to bite as we have learned in Parry Sound. That $1.2 million upgrade at the Stockey Centre is required because the current roof leaks and needs to be replaced. And the siding at the Stockey Centre hasn’t held up as well as promised. In the case of the Bobby Orr Community Centre, the town was required to spend tens of thousands to repair/replace/upgrade the heating in the stands. The BOCC roof will cost thousands more to repair/replace/upgrade. It’s possible to do things on the cheap, but it usually turns out to be a mistake.
So, let’s work with $11 million to build a municipal pool. This is for a 25 metre five lane pool, no high diving area, and no separate children’s pool. Certainly no separate fitness area.
None of the local communities, certainly not the Town of Parry Sound, can afford to pay $11 million upfront for a new pool so we need a debenture. There are many considerations in estimating the cost of a debenture, but what the heck, let’s go for it.
The first thing to be decided is the length of the debenture. I understand this generally is the expected lifetime of the facility. An indoor pool is different than most other buildings. The humidity and pool chemicals have a profoundly negative impact on longevity. A pool can last longer than 20 to 30 years, but the maintenance costs rise substantially as the pool ages. For the purpose of our discussion I will optimistically assume a 30-year bond.
An $11 million, 30-year, bond will cost about $700,000 per year at an interest rate of 3.5%. This 3.5% rate seems to be a reasonable, albeit optimistic, figure. Over the length of the loan the pool would have cost $21 million, or about twice the initial cost. That’s not too bad for the privilege of stretching it out over thirty years. It’s likely that inflation will average more than 3.5% over this period. People too easily forget the 1980s and the 10-15% interest rates people paid for mortgages.
If we drop the repayment period to 20 years, the annual cost rises to about $750,000. Keeping the period at 30 years and using a 5% interest rate raises the annual payments to $870,000.
This is perhaps the weakest part of this analysis and most subject to correction. Nonetheless, the costs can be approached from a couple of different directions with results that hopefully come close.
There is some public information available regarding operating costs. The article mentioned earlier estimates operating costs at about $450,000 in 2013 dollars for a pool that should meet Parry Sound’s needs. Inflated to 2018 this number rises to about $480,000. These figures reflect post user revenue. So, the numbers need to be increased accordingly. Adding in $220,000 for user related offsetting revenue raises the annual operating costs rise to about $700,000. Looking more closely at the article the costs could be higher or lower by $100,000.
Another way to estimate the costs is to look at the cost to operate the Bobby Orr Community Centre, for which we have figures. There is a huge difference between the two in terms of costs. The BOCC only actively operates for a bit more than half the year with an ice pad. For the other months the building is maintained and available for public use, but with much lower expenses. A pool in contrast needs to be actively maintained 12 months a year. While an ice pad, once in place, mostly stays that way, a pool probably needs to be refreshed several times a year with a much higher use of water. Pools also require chemicals. But they don’t require a Zamboni type machine.
Reviewing the 2018 Town of Parry Sound budget documents I see that the BOCC has expenses in 2017 estimated at $700,000 and revenues of $180,000, for a net of $500,000 (don’t worry about the arithmetic, it only needs to be close because it certainly won’t be correct). The Stockey Centre had estimated operating costs of $1.5 million in 2017.
Okay, let’s go with $700,000 for the annual operating expenses for a municipal pool. This seems a bit low in comparison with the Bobby Orr Community Centre expenses, but it’s an estimate.
Some guidance is offered by looking at the Bracebridge 2017 Budget figures for their Sportsplex. This is a much larger operation and has annual expenses of $1.6 million, including the facility’s debenture principal and interest of about $640,000. This debenture figure is lower than I would have thought, but it may have been lowered by upper level government grants, which is also possible for a pool in the Parry Sound area. Operating expenses then were about $1 million. The two largest items were wages ($330,000) and hydro ($260,000).
If you have a pool you need to offer programming. This ranges from management, to instructors, to life guards. I wanted to exclude a person to lead the programming activity as there is already such a person in Parry Sound, but if this is a joint municipality project we need to add in a programming head who also keeps an eye on the operations and makes sure things don’t screw up.
Let’s add in about $150,000 for programming costs. This would include 0.5 FTE to oversee the pool operation and programming as well as instructors and life guards. As a reference point the Town of Parry Sound spent a little more than $60,000 for their outdoor Swim Program in 2017 that stretches no more than three months.
It would only be prudent to add in another $100,000 per year to a Reserve Fund for the pool. This is what’s suggested in the 2013 Exeter article, and while a little low it’s close enough.
Adding together all of the costs for a pool we end up with annual expenses of about $1.5 million. If you add together the expenses I’ve estimated in the earlier sections, you will see that I’ve rounded it down a bit. It only needs to be close and I’d rather not be seen as trying to stick a knife in the project.
But, that’s only part of the total package. There will be revenue and there are likely to be grants. We can depend on user fees, so let’s take a look at them. Upper level government grants are a different issue that are likely and not guaranteed. Local fund raising is possible, but it will represent a drop in the bucket. I have rounded down the expenses in part, so let’s forget about local fund raising being a meaningful dollar contributor. It’s more likely to be a symbolic statement of support than a financial pillar upon which to build the argument for a pool.
There is also the possibility of a partnership with the YMCA or the school board. One has expressed interest, and the other hasn’t. Neither would really change the costs, nor what we would pay in our taxes. The YMCA still needs to get money to pay their part, either grants or user fees, and the school board would probably just raise the education portion of our taxes to pay their part. I may be pessimistic, but beyond some operational efficiencies in a partnership, these groups won’t improve the bottom line in terms of tax impact. Expenses don’t just disappear, and revenues don’t just appear.
This is a bit trickier, because it assumes a price structure for pool use. The only indirect experience I have is with the Sudbury Y. It offers a full family membership, including pool use, for $1,200 per year. The Bracebridge pool offers family pool use for a specified 45-minute period each Saturday for 3 months for about $60. That adds up to about $240 per year. And that is for one 45-minute period on one defined day per week. In Barrie it’s $17 per family per visit. Once a month would be $200 per year, once a week would be $900 per year.
Okay, let’s go with the annual use fee from that Exeter 2013 article of $1,000 per year per family. What that offers in terms of pool access is not clear. The article also mentions a total of 300 memberships, and $300,000 in revenue. All of those numbers carry much more baggage than I want to discuss in this post. I’ll get to that in the last of this four-post series. For now, we’ll assume $300,000 in revenue, the equivalent about 20,000 family days of use at $15/day.
Add the numbers together and we end up with a net cost of $1.2 million per year for a municipal pool, not an aquatic centre or recreational complex. That is before any upper level government grants.
If the Town of Parry Sound was to shoulder the full expense Town taxes would increase by about 12%. It would be a one-time increase that would carry forward, but unlike the infrastructure reserve expense it would not be increased each year.
In the next post I’ll take a look at the various municipalities, their assessments, their tax rates, their ‘demographics’ and the local political issues that might impact any decision or support for a municipal pool. The last post will be the most interesting in my opinion as I consider some of the human aspects of a municipal pool, particularly how it might impact different segments of the community.
Hang tight Ryan. The next post should be up by the middle of this coming week.