What should residents pay to access city services?
As city council pores through the core service review report from KPMG, looking at those unorganized "suggested opportunities" for savings, user fees are an obvious opportunity for additional revenue generation for city coffers.
It begs the question of why a consultant needed to be hired to explore raising user fees. City staff could just as easily have done a comparison of other B.C. municipalities to see where Prince George sits on the issue of user fees to swimming pools, hockey rinks and other civic facilities.
But that's the side issue.
The real issue revolves around whether community access to things like parks and other recreational space owned and operated by the city should have an extra user fee attached to it and, if so, how much?
Should income be a factor in deciding which residents get to use taxpayer-funded facilities like the Prince George Aquatic Centre, Four Seasons Pool, CN Centre, the Coliseum, Rotary Soccer Fields, Citizen Field and so on?
It already is to a large degree, since families have to register their children with various youth sports organizations to take part in team sports happening on the various playing fields maintained by city staff.
Any increase in user fees to these groups will simply be passed on to the families, which will be reflected in higher annual registration fees and increased tournament costs. The only other option to keep registration costs steady to play soccer, baseball or hockey, for example, would be to shrink the season and reduce the number of games played.
That's where raising user fees could backfire on the city.
If the Prince George Youth Soccer Association or the Prince George Minor Hockey Association decided to cut the length of their seasons to keep registration costs down, the city would be no further ahead in terms of revenue while the costs to maintain these facilities would still be there.
In other words, city council and KPMG are presuming that use will stay at the same level (and hopefully even increase) after user fees are raised.
Curiously, that's the same kind of logic at work in the current NHL lockout, where players and owners are arguing about billions in revenues under the assumption that fans will happily return to fill arenas once a new deal in place.
Prince George offers the lowest rental rate for indoor ice time, compared to North Vancouver, Kamloops, Kelowna, Chilliwack and Nanaimo but why should the city look at this as an obvious funding source?
Northern Health and other community agencies are working hard to get youth physically active because the obvious benefits of a healthy community saves money for government in the long term in reduced health-care costs. Furthermore, young people playing team sports bring together kids and parents, teaching social skills and strengthening community.
That value can't be measured on a spreadsheet.
To recruit and retain young working professionals to Prince George, access at a reasonable price to those facilities is a consideration when looking at relocating to Northern B.C.
In that context, lower user fees shouldn't be seen as a money grab but rather as robbing Peter to pay Paul. It might help the numbers add up at the end of the budget year but there is a substantial long-term cost that will be paid, nevertheless.
Thankfully, some city councillors, such as Dave Wilbur, were "skeptical" of KPMG's thought process on user fees.
Coun. Brian Skakun made the interested assertion that the regional district might not be paying its fair share for people living outside of city limits to access city facilities.
That's an interesting question worth asking but Skakun and his council colleagues should know the answer before pursuing that question too hard. That would be a bitter pill to swallow if a comparison of other B.C. regional districts found the Fraser Fort George Regional District was above average in paying its dues to support Prince George facilities.
Tomorrow: Applying user fees elsehwhere
-- Managing editor Neil Godbout