Nelson city councillor Valerie Warmington.

Nelson city councillor Valerie Warmington.

COLUMN: On recreation and regional discussions

Newly-elected city councillor Valerie Warmington comments on recreation and regional discussions.

As a newly-elected city councillor, one of many surprises I’ve experienced is just how quickly complex and far-reaching decisions are needed after taking office. Very early in the learning process I found myself voting on a $5 million pool renovation about which I knew only the basics.

I knew that the annual cost of maintaining recreational services had risen from $1.5 million in 2003 to $5 million in 2014 and that most of the increase was pool-related even before factoring in the pending renovation. I’d also heard that previous councils were concerned about rising costs and the sustainability of facilities and services, and interested in reviewing cost-sharing arrangements with rural neighbours.

One important agreement between Nelson and the wider Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK) dates back to 2003. At the time, the provincial government was interested in helping municipalities that didn’t have an industrial tax base to provide recreational and cultural services.

The support was intended to encourage and sustain investment in the wider region. It was agreed that if Nelson extended its municipal boundaries to encompass several hydro dams, the provincial government would redirect related tax revenue from provincial coffers back to Nelson to operate and maintain services.

The boundary expansion was structured to ensure that existing revenues accruing to RDCK areas would not be reduced. Areas still receive tax and grant revenues on the same basis as they did prior to the boundary expansion.

Nelson assumed the costs of municipally-mandated services in the expanded boundary area and allocated its new tax revenue, as well as a sizeable proportion of its Nelson Hydro dividend, to a range of recreational services important to both rural and municipal residents. By reducing the amount of money remaining to be paid through taxation, Nelson hoped that rural areas would agree to contribute to the services used by their residents.

More than a decade later, Nelson continues to contribute the full amount of boundary expansion taxation and maintains its contribution of the hydro dividend directly to recreational services.

While some progress has been achieved on sharing the remaining costs with our neighbours, the city currently covers about 60 per cent of these costs. Statistics contained in the recreation master plan suggest that about 50 per cent of facility users are from outlying rural areas and that the trend is toward greater rural use of services over time.

Nelson now needs to increase its investment in upgrading and repairing its recreation and cultural infrastructure. At the same time the city faces other tax-funded cost pressures as the effects of prolonged budget cuts and downloading of services by federal and provincial governments are increasingly apparent.

Consequently, city council wishes to reinvigorate discussion with RDCK directors about changing demographics, cost-sharing and other factors affecting Nelson’s operation as a service hub.

In particular, decade-old recreation agreements that were contingent upon increased regional participation should be revisited. To this end, Nelson recently moved to reallocate part of its recreation contribution from the Nelson and District Community Complex to other regionally-beneficial recreation services.

The revenue withdrawn from NDCC this year was considered for reallocation to services well-used by, but poorly cost-shared with neighbours. Reallocation of this $184,000 was intended to move toward fairer taxing of Nelson residents for the particular services in question.

At the moment, a final decision on the use of these funds is on hold pending further discussion with our RDCK partners. Undoubtedly, there is more to learn and much to discuss. Nelson city council remains committed to and fully engaged in working together for a well-serviced, healthy and prosperous region.

Nelson city councillor Valerie Warmington shares this space each week with her colleagues.