Pub­lic ser­vices com­mit­tee eyes user fee hikes

Medicine Hat News - - FRONT PAGE - JEREMY AP­PEL jap­pel@medicine­hat­news.com Twit­ter: MHNJere­myAp­pel

As part of ef­forts to con­tain costs, Medicine Hat’s pub­lic ser­vices com­mit­tee dis­cussed po­ten­tial user fee hikes at its Nov. 10 meet­ing.

The com­mit­tee also en­ter­tained the pos­si­bil­ity of an ad­di­tional one per cent tax in­crease to off­set the $650,000 short­fall cre­ated by coun­cil’s re­ver­sal on un­pop­u­lar changes made to the bus sys­tem.

Both mea­sures are part of the city’s broader Fi­nan­cially Fit pro­gram, which seeks to re­duce gov­ern­ment costs in the light of de­clin­ing nat­u­ral gas rev­enues.

Coun. Jim Turner, who sits on the com­mit­tee, said the pro­posed fee in­creases, which still need ap­proval from coun­cil, are wholly un­re­lated to the tran­sit sit­u­a­tion.

“We had some ini­tial fee in­creases in last year’s bud­get and, of course, this is for the 2018 bud­get,” Turner said, adding that the over­all goal is to re­duce the ser­vices’ de­pen­dence on gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies.

“We’re try­ing to move to a point where the fee ac­tu­ally cov­ers what the ser­vice is,” Turner said. “We’ll never get to 100 per cent, but we’re try­ing to get a lit­tle closer to what the fees ac­tu­ally cost to run the fa­cil­i­ties.”

An­other com­mit­tee mem­ber, Coun. Kris Sam­raj, said that the Fi­nan­cially Fit ini­tia­tive aims to strike a bal­ance be­tween of­fer­ing qual­ity pub­lic ser­vices and main­tain­ing their af­ford­abil­ity.

“It’s go­ing to have to be paid for some­how,” said Sam­raj.

“The op­tions be­fore us re­gard­ing user fees are higher taxes that everybody pays, and you can have more ac­ces­si­bil­ity to these ser­vices, or you can have slightly lower taxes and higher fees for peo­ple that use them.

“Ob­vi­ously, the bal­ance there is whether the price is right for our com­mu­nity.”

Us­age of ser­vices in­creased this year, de­spite last year’s fee in­creases, he added.

“There’s no right or wrong so­lu­tion here,” Sam­raj said. “There’s go­ing to be trade­offs ei­ther way here and how to bal­ance those, that’s some­thing I’m still think­ing about.”

The pro­posed fee in­creases in­clude a $10 per ses­sion hike in the cost of swim­ming lessons for a to­tal of $60, a $3 per hour in­crease for soc­cer field rentals, to­tal­ing $19 per hour, and a $40 in­crease per hour of ice time, to­tal­ing $240 an hour.

Meals at the Strath­cona Se­niors Cen­tre would in­crease $1.50 per meal for a to­tal of $10, while Meals on Wheels would stay the same at $8.50 per meal.

Lo­cals re­act

Medicine Hat pee­wee Hounds hockey coach Chris Bow­ers said that grow­ing user fees are be­gin­ning to make it pro­hib­i­tively pricey for youth to get ice time.

“It’s start­ing to make it very ex­pen­sive to pick up hockey for kids to play shinny, and just come out with their bud­dies and have fun,” he said.

Bower said that cost isn’t the only is­sue, as it’s dif­fi­cult to find ice time with all the lo­cal groups who use a lim­ited amount of space, but he’s seen it be­come a grow­ing bar­rier to lo­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion.

“If you want to host a game, lots of teams from Medicine Hat will look at host­ing games in an­other town,” he said, adding that ice time is both cheaper and more avail­able in small mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties like Brooks and Bas­sano.

“It’s a com­bi­na­tion of lack of avail­abil­ity and cost. When you take the two fac­tors and put them to­gether, you just look else­where.”

Mike Ja­cobs, who has two kids in the Al­berta Mar­lins Aquatic Club, says that while he per­son­ally doesn’t mind pay­ing an ex­tra $10 per swim­ming les­son, he be­lieves that fit­ness ini­tia­tives should be more ad­e­quately funded by the mu­nic­i­pal­ity.

“The gov­ern­ment should be in­creas­ing ac­tiv­ity among peo­ple, in­stead of hav­ing obe­sity and ev­ery­thing else,” said Ja­cobs. “In the long term, fit­ness saves (on) health care.”

Well-funded com­mu­nity fa­cil­i­ties al­low lower-in­come kids the abil­ity to par­tic­i­pate in the same ac­tiv­i­ties as those who are more for­tu­nate, he added.

Ja­cobs said coun­cil should look at a more sig­nif­i­cant tax in­crease rather than mak­ing users pay for ser­vices out of their own pocket.

“That’s what prop­erty taxes are for,” he said.

NEWS PHOTO JEREMY AP­PEL

The pub­lic works com­mit­tee's pro­posed user fee in­creases would in­crease the price of rent­ing ice time from $220 to $240 per hour.

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