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Cutbacks at Vernon pool causes political squabble over funding

Click to play video 'Political finger pointing over Vernon Aquatic Centre cuts' Political finger pointing over Vernon Aquatic Centre cuts
The City of Vernon is planning to cut pool hours and raise user fees at the city's aquatic centre in the name of safety. – Feb 26, 2020

The City of Vernon is planning to cut pool hours and raise user fees at the city’s aquatic centre in the name of safety.

The city said it is making the cutbacks to free up funding to meet new lifeguard standards that will add a $43,000 cost to the city’s budget.

The planned cutbacks have led to some finger-pointing by politicians over who is to blame for the service reduction at the popular amenity.

A city staff report said two nearby electoral areas and the neighboring municipality of Coldstream, whose residents also use the facility, wouldn’t pay a percentage of the lifeguard cost increase.

READ MORE: He saved his 6-year-old brother from an icy Vernon pool. Now he’s been honoured with a medal

That led some city councillors to suggest that the outlying areas aren’t contributing equitably to funding the service.

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“This is going to impact people that really can’t afford to have their kids in hockey or other sports,” said Coun. Dalvir Nahal at Monday’s council meeting.

“I know I’m going to get in trouble saying this, Coldstream is a pretty lush, bougie place and so it might not affect them but it’s really going to affect a lot of the people that live in the downtown core.”

Click to play video 'Vernon city councillors targeted with death threats' Vernon city councillors targeted with death threats
Vernon city councillors targeted with death threats – Feb 24, 2020

The city’s mayor struck a more conciliatory tone, noting the extra cost was a surprise to all jurisdictions involved.

However, the leaders of the neighbouring jurisdictions are pushing back at any suggestions they are to blame for the cuts.

They point out they are operating under the terms of an agreement that gives the city decision-making power over for recreational services in exchange for an agreed-upon annual payment from the other jurisdictions.

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The electoral areas and Coldstream say this year that payment will total more than $1.1 million.

Could shortfall come from reserve funds?

Vernon’s neighbours suggest instead of coming to them for more money to pay for lifeguards, the city could use a reserve fund to cover the cost.

The three other jurisdictions say around the time they originally entered into the recreation agreement with Vernon, the city was transferred a recreation facilities and programs reserve fund of nearly $2.7 million.

“Cutting back the service in this way was a choice [Vernon council] made but they may have made it, at council, in the absence of complete information so that’s what we were hoping to provide,” said electoral area director Bob Fleming.

READ MORE: Mayor defends Vernon’s 4.9% tax increase in 2020 budget

“We are hoping with this additional information maybe it will give pause.”

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However, Vernon’s mayor is defending the city’s decision to ask its neighbours for more funds.

Mayor Victor Cumming pointed out the agreement was made when service level requirements were different.

“We all didn’t expect this change in service level requirement,” Cumming said.

“Now the question is what do we do when we have this required need for an increase in service? If all the partnership doesn’t want to put in extra money then our solution is pretty straight forward — we have to cut hours and raise fees.”

As for why the city didn’t take the extra money for lifeguards from reserve funds, the mayor said traditionally that’s not what those funds are for.

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Cumming said those reserves are supposed to be for situations where there is a revenue shortfall, for example, if pool attendance drops and users fees are down.

In a statement, the city added that it “did not feel it was prudent to rely on reserves for an ongoing operation cost.”

The total shortfall for additional lifeguards is $43,000 and the neighbouring jurisdictions were asked for $13,601.

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However, so far, the city has indicated it is only willing to pay the remaining nearly $30,000 shortfall from its budget if other jurisdictions pay up.

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The city’s reasoning is that Vernon also has a set funding level as part of this agreement and changing the deal, in this case to pay for lifeguards, would require all the parties to agree.

The current plan would see the total shortfall funded through service cuts and increased fees.

Pool to close early

According to a city memo, the planned cutbacks will see the pool close 30 minutes earlier four nights a week and an hour earlier on Fridays.

For eight weekends in the summer there will also be no afternoon swim.

If the city continues with its current plan, pool fees are also set to increase by four per cent.

The reduced hours are supposed to start March 2, while the fee increases are planned for April.