Free ride on city recreation fees a hard sell in an election year
A good idea that pops up every few years – abolishing fees for recreation programs – is back, but it is not likely to go anywhere.
City council’s development and recreation committee voted 5-1 in favour of ending fees for the wide range of activities offered at city recreational facilities, as a way to allow more people to participate.
It must still be approved by the rest of city council, which will get hung up on where to find the $30 to $40 million in fees that would be lost and are needed to operate facilities and fund programs, and shoot it down.
Don’t get me wrong. If I was a city councillor, I’d want to know where the money will come from. I’d be leery about selling yet another property tax hike to voters, on top of the 1.6 per cent to pay for the Scarborough subway.
But I have always thought that a city as prosperous as Toronto should be able to make recreation programs as widely available as possible. The benefits to the community are worth the cost, and extend far beyond the people using the programs.
I’d like it to be free for everyone, but I understand that passing along the entire cost in the form of a tax increase, particularly now, is simply not on. With an election in 12 months, there is unlikely to be a mustering of the courage needed to do it.
Besides, if everything was free, participation would increase and operating costs would go up, leaving the city scrambling to find more money down the road.
A lesser known but pernicious reason for fees is to depress enrolment in programs, which also lowers the bill, but at a cost of shutting out people who are too poor to pay.
So the proposal will fail, just like it did last time it came to council, and the time before.
The councillors who approved it at the committee already know the facts as laid out above, which leads me to think they want to look like they're swinging for the fence but are hoping to poke a single.
If they can remove fees from at least some programs, it’ll be a win for them and also for the people who use them. The money lost will be much less, more likely to be found within the budget process and not require a tax hike.
But that’s still a hard sell, unless they limit it to youth programs. It’s hard to say no to kids from families who can’t pay a fee. And there’s political upside, even in an election cycle, to saying that if we just squeeze out a little more gravy, we can use it to help kids.
That could get you re-elected.