Greater Sudbury city councillors showed little appetite Nov. 13 for raising user fees at municipal sports fields to levels much closer to actual costs.
Instead of adopting the nine recommendations from Auditor General Brian Bigger, the audit committee instead voted to simply receive them, and the findings will go to the community services committee for debate and decisions.
Among his findings, Bigger said the city's policy of increasing user fees by three per cent a year is slowly narrowing the gap between what they charge to use the fields, and how much it costs to operate and replace them. But in 2011, revenues from groups that use the fields covered just 12.9 per cent of operating and capital costs.
While welcoming the audit, most councillors said encouraging youth to participate in sports was worth the cost, comparing sports fields to libraries, which play a vital role in the community but aren't expected to be self-sustaining.
Ward 8 Coun. Fabio Belli said hiking rates for soccer, for example, would have the effect of reducing the number of kids who could take part.
“You're going to hear a lot of complaints,” Belli said.
Ward 11 Coun. Terry Kett agreed, saying he grew up in a poor family, and was only able to play sports because the costs were kept low. Adopting the recommendations would have a huge impact on the lives of economically disadvantaged children who won't be able to afford to play sports.
“And I don't want to see that happen,” Kett said.
He said there's no way he could go along with the “extremely conservative” recommendations contained in the audit.
Bigger emphasized his audit wasn't necessarily calling for increased user fees, but aimed instead to give councillors a better idea of the funding gap that exists between revenue and expenses. It would then be up to councillors to decide what policies to adopt to promote the goal of sustainability for city sports fields.
While praising information in the report, Ward 2 Coun. Jacques Barbeau questioned why the committee was being asked to adopt the audit recommendations. He said the best way to proceed was for the audit committee to receive the recommendations, and then send them to the community services committee for more debate and study.
But he echoed Kett, saying there's considerable benefit to the city if more kids are playing sports, in terms of their health and the social skills they learn playing on a team.
What's needed, Barbeau said, is a broader study of all the city's sports fields, with an eye on which should remain open, which should close, which should be expanded, etc. As they found with the city's ice rinks, there may be ways to cut costs without affecting services.
Bigger also suggested the city look at charging hourly rates for the use of fields, rather than charging teams a flat rate of $15 per participant. He also recommends having teams pay their fees at the start of the season, when teams collect their fees from players, rather than at the end, as is the current practice.