City should sell some buildings

Just like for local residents, the bills never stop coming in for the City of Prince George.

The latest big expense on the horizon is $79 million over the next 10 years for basic upkeep of civic facilities. City council received a detailed report this week of a comprehensive three-year review of 53 of the city's 62 facilities. Currently, the city is spending about $2.2 million per year on facility maintenance but that is less than a third of the annual funds needed to do the job properly, engineering and public works general manager Dave Dyer told mayor and council.

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More good news: that number doesn't include the cost of taking on new facilities or of upgrading current buildings.

Just like local residents facing a huge bill to maintain stuff they own, one quick and long-term solution that will help decrease the size of the problem is to start selling.

Most of the buildings the city owns have to stay in public hands, from the fire halls and the swimming pools to the arenas, the library, the art gallery and city hall itself.

Yet there are several buildings in the city's inventory that could be sold to both help pay for the upkeep of essential civic facilities while also reducing that overall long-term maintenance bill.

The city owns the Via Rail building on First Avenue. While Tourism Prince George operates out of that building (and more than a few local residents would argue that's not where it belongs), there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for local government to own it, especially if annual upkeep costs are $150,000 per year or $1.5 million over the next 10 years. Not only would the city have that liability off the books, a private owner would be paying property taxes on the building, which would help offset Tourism Prince George's costs to lease the space.

Best of all, the sale might put as much (or more) than $7.1 million into city coffers, which is what the assessment report found would be the cost to replace the building if it burned to the ground.

A few other buildings jump out as possibilities to put into the hands of private owners.

The city owns the Kinsmen Community Centre. Considering both the Hart Community Centre and Columbus Community Centre are privately held, there seems little reason for this facility to be owned by local government. If the building and property could be sold for anything near its replacement value of $6.4 million, that's an easy win for the city.

How about the Seniors Activity Centre downtown and the Elder Citizens Rec Centre?

Again, the Hart Pioneer Centre isn't owned by the city, so there's nothing written in stone that says the city needs to own either of those buildings. With replacement values of $8.6 million (ECRA) and $7.7 million (SAC), there could be an opportunity there, especially since the annual maintenance charges on those two buildings are estimated at $114,000 for the SAC and $172,000 for ECRA.

How about the SPCA building and property?

The Prince George Hospice Society operates out of leased, privately-owned space on First Avenue, so there's no reason the SPCA couldn't do the same. Yes, the SPCA works with the city to enforce the animal control bylaw but that doesn't necessarily mean the city needs to own a building and land to house the SPCA.

Some might argue the city shouldn't own the Connaught Youth Centre or the South Fort George Rec Centre, either. Others would say it's time to cash in on the value of the property the Prince George Playhouse sits on.

Regardless, the point is that mayor and council need to give a hard look at the city's building assets before exploring increased taxes, increased user fees and other options to pay that maintenance bill.

Reducing the size of that bill by reducing the number of buildings and properties owned by the City of Prince George would be the right place to start.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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