November 22nd, 2017

Public services committee eyes user fee hikes


By Jeremy Appel on November 14, 2017.

NEWS PHOTO JEREMY APPEL
The public works committee's proposed user fee increases would increase the price of renting ice time to $240 per hour from $200 per hour.


jappel@medicinehatnews.com
@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.


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