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Kicking the can down the road

City council grapples with aging infrastructure, and list could grow with other public buildings that need fixes
The city is considering a $36 million repair bill to update the 25-year-old Prince George Aquatic Centre.

The danger in kicking the can down the road.

Prince George city council met earlier in May to discuss and debate the merits of spending more than $37 million to do repairs and upgrades to the Aquatic Centre. Of the estimated $37 million budget, $22.15 million would have to be borrowed.

Built in 1998, the Aquatic Centre requires extensive renovations, including mechanical upgrades, roof and building envelope repairs. Citizens of Prince George have three options on how to address these repairs and failures:  do nothing, while the building continues to degrade; spend $37 million and make the necessary repairs; or build a new Aquatic Centre from scratch – with an estimated cost of $100 million.

City council voted in favour of the option to do the repairs.  Despite the City of Prince George’s preferred borrowing rate of 4.56 percent through the Municipal Finance Authority, financed over 20 years, debt servicing will be $1.68 million annually. Requiring an increase of 1.38 percent to the property tax levy. 

Looking back through our coverage over the past few years, this isn’t the first time that council and the city have addressed the Aquatic Centre.  In September of 2020, the city announced that it had received funding for this project from the provincial and federal governments, totalling $6.3 million.  At the time, the plan was to use this funding to make a total of $14.8 million in repairs to the mechanical systems, roof and wall – the same repairs being brought forward again now - and the city announced that construction was to begin in 2021. 

Clearly, that work never happened, and we’re looking down the barrel of $37 million in costs if the alternative approval process passes. What’s even more clear is that a dollar in 2024 goes roughly one-third of how far it did in 2020, when applied to publicly funded capital projects. That projected number doesn’t take into account any budget overruns, something city council has struggled with for the past two terms.

$37 million is not an insignificant amount, especially in a city hovering around a population of 80,000 residents.  And that figure only represents one of our many city-owned facilities that are getting long in the tooth.  What surprises await when staff reports are submitted for other public assets, such as the downtown library, Studio 2880, Kopar Memorial Arena, Prince George Playhouse, Prince George Gymnastics Centre, Elksentre, and the Agriplex at Exhibition Grounds?

If repairs and renovations are required at these facilities, does the city have a capital plan that takes a long, hard look at each of the above to determine whether to repair or replace each of these? Should we even be looking at each of these in isolation, or instead look at which ones could be incorporated into a comprehensive plan, such as the civic plaza? 

One thing is clear, successive councils have chosen not to spend the necessary money to maintain city facilities. This in spite city staff bringing it to council’s attention yearly for over a decade.  In the rush to be seen to be fiscally responsible, they refused to allocate the necessary funds to ensure repairs were done. As every homeowner knows, the longer you put off a repair, the bigger and more expensive that needed repair becomes.

Those pennies saved by councillors over the years when repair costs were lower and the city was doing better have become serious dollars that now need to be spent. This on the heels of last week’s devastating news of hundreds of jobs being lost due to mill closures and curtailments.

What is clear is the absolute need for a pragmatic plan, looking at all of our assets and how they fit - five, 10 and 20 years down the road.  Does dedicating $37 million to a pool with defects in its walls, roof and mechanical systems make long-term sense?  Will our current council continue following in the footsteps of their predecessors and ignore the state of our city facilities infrastructure? 

Will Prince George city council bring forth a comprehensive plan with dedicated funding? Or will they kick the proverbial can down the road, like they did with the Aquatic Centre four years ago?

We can’t undo the lack of repair work and upkeep in the past, but we must have a plan and the funding set aside to deal with what is coming down the pipeline with respect to our city assets. 

Curtis Armstrong is the publisher of the Prince George Citizen