User fees can’t pay whole cost of community facilities

"Whenever possible, municipalities should charge user fees for services provided."

This blanket statement, part of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation Beggar’s Checklist for municipal politicians, has wide-ranging and sometimes unexpected results.

While the CTF says that taxpayers need relief and suggests that fees might offer it, Valley taxpayers don’t always agree.

Users of the Cowichan Aquatic Centre, angry at two-tier user fees and begging to be allowed to pay on their taxes instead, have demonstrated with placards outside the pool.

In January 2013, a large delegation showed up at Lake Cowichan town council, begging councillors to find a way to bring their community into the group of areas that paid for the Cowichan Aquatic Centre through their taxes instead of through bumped-up two-tier user fees.

Spokesperson Marg Davis pointed out that high fees were discouraging lower income families from enrolling their children in swimming programs at the pool while others said that local seniors were missing out on a valuable rehabilitation exercise simply because they couldn’t afford it.

Only a month later, longtime holdout Area E Director Loren Duncan stunned members of the Cowichan Valley Regional District board by asking that his area be included in the pool group as well, delighting those directors whose taxpayers were already paying for the facility.

The problem of how to fund big public facilities is a knotty and ongoing one for politicians at all levels, according to North Cowichan Mayor Jon Lefebure, whose municipality has been involved since the outset with the pool and the community centre.

The Island Savings Centre and the Cowichan Theatre themselves offer challenges.

The huge centre needs renovation or replacement at some point and politicians are wrestling with how to deal with that.

Also, as recently as last year a meeting was held to try to find ways to increase the connection between the community and the Cowichan Theatre.

Selling off the Island Savings Centre is not an option, despite the challenges, according to Lefebure.

"The community centre is really supported by taxes so it’s not something we are able to make money on. If somebody took it over as a private enterprise, then all the many, many groups that use it at a reasonable cost would probably be driven somewhere else.

"I don’t know how a private company would be able to make money on a community centre," he said.

Supporters of the Cowichan Theatre commented after their recent meeting that it’s becoming more difficult for local groups to afford to stage performances at the venue even now as funding is harder to find and theatregoers tighten their belts.

"We already subsidize the theatre," Lefebure said.

"What local government is faced with is that, when you provide facilities for public use, realistically it is highly unlikely that you will ever be able to recover the cost through user fees. The higher the user fee, the closer it gets to the actual cost for that individual to come through the door, then the fewer people can and will afford to go through that door."

That was the point made by the Lake Cowichan residents who said that registration for swim programs from their area dropped significantly when fees went up.

Lefebure also compared the problem to that facing BC Ferries.

"If they raise the rates too much, they get decreased passenger ridership and it’s sort of self-defeating. We know that just like a school or any other asset in the community, we have to subsidize the operation [of the community centre or pool] with general taxpayer funding.

"And we do that in the belief that we are creating a better community by doing that," he said.