City should avoid major fee hikes – comment/editorial – City should avoid major fee hikes
January 09, 2008

From swimming to mom and tot sessions, few Toronto services bring residents together more than the city’s 52,000 recreational programs. They are part of the glue that binds our community.

So it is worrying that Toronto’s recreation department is lobbying for a sharp 60-per-cent-plus increase in existing user fees over seven years, starting with a 21-per-cent hike this year, as part of a new “Everybody Gets to Play” recreation strategy. That is well above inflation, and runs the risk of deterring some people, including those on modest incomes or with a number of children in city programs, from using what the city has to offer. Not everyone may get to play.

This “cost recovery” or “user pay” approach would bring in about $70 million a year in registration fees by 2014, up from $44 million today. And undeniably, it would fund a range of worthy programs.

It would provide free, city-funded swimming lessons during school hours in Grade 4, skating lessons for students in Grade 5, and “leadership” training for those in Grades 8 and 9.

The idea is to boost participation in recreation programs, especially by children and teenagers. The leadership program, for example, would benefit teens by providing instruction in everything from filling out job applications to advice on volunteering. The learn-to-swim program could prevent drowning, especially among children in immigrant communities with no tradition of water sports.

But if city council regards these programs as essential, and is prepared to make that case to the public, it should consider leaving fees where they are and raising the extra $26 million through a modest increase in the property tax. Spreading the cost of worthwhile programs to society at large is more in keeping with the principles of community, and of shared civic action and responsibility, than raising the burden on individuals. The real danger with user fees is that at some point they become more than people of modest means can afford.

Using property taxes would allow Toronto to preserve another feature of the recreation department’s strategy, which is to give more help to the less affluent. The city now runs free programs at 21 community centres in needy neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, according to city officials, residents from more affluent areas have been driving to those centres and enrolling free-of-charge. That isn’t ideal.

So officials propose to phase out free community centres while providing a subsidy to poor residents for use in any city-run recreation program. At first blush, this seems convoluted. Why not just ask users to show proof they live within the community?

But even if the subsidy scheme, which would cost $6.3 million by 2011, makes sense, it too, like the new programs, could just as easily be funded through property taxes, without a steep hike in user fees.

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