Big spending behind parks agreement break-up

Cities going in different directions, says Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read.

Maple Ridge wants to borrow money to build a new pool and other facilities.

The breakup of the cities’ partnership in parks and recreation was spurred on by the larger Maple Ridge’s coming “spending spree,” say members of Pitt Meadows council.

Maple Ridge is investigating the possibility of borrowing up to $110 million to build new fields, arenas and a pool.

Pitt Meadows, its business partner in parks and recreation, is coming off a zero-per-cent tax increase, and is served by a council that still believes in austerity.

That the two have agreed to a “divorce” in parks and recreation should not be surprising, said Pitt Meadows Mayor John Becker.

He and other members of his council were criticized when Maple Ridge announced in October that it would end the joint leisure services agreement with Pitt Meadows at the end of October 2016.

Some speculated that Pitt Meadows council publicly criticizing the large pay raises given to GM of parks and recreation Kelly Swift and other senior staff was behind Maple Ridge’s alienation.

“Relationships are about being professional, mutual respect, and effort on the part of both parties,” Pitt Meadows Coun. Bill Dingwall said at the time.

Becker said he had been aware “for some time,” through informal discussions with Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read and through meetings, that Maple Ridge council was “taking a really serious look at parks and recreation infrastructure.

“My sense was many of these investments were being characterized as a catch-up. It comes as no surprise to me that it’s a significant dollar amount.”

Under the agreement, each city is solely responsible for capital infrastructure within its boundaries – the agreement to share costs 80 and 20 per cent between the two cities applies only to operating expenses.

However, there were two significant factors that came into play.

One, that operating expenses could rise significantly with new facilities to be maintained and staffed.

Two, that Pitt Meadows councillors had already expressed reluctance to share in recreation facilities located in the eastern reaches of Maple Ridge, or as Becker called it, “the wilds of Albion.”

Becker said the two cities never finished the conversation they were having about the financial inequities in the recreation deal. A study of the joint parks and leisure services agreement found it was costing Maple Ridge $200,000 more per year than if it was operating on its own.

Maple Ridge, he said, did not want to be held back by its 20 per cent partner.

“They wanted independence to do exactly what they are doing now,” said Becker.

Pitt Meadows Coun. Janis Elkerton had raised the issue of parks and rec staff pay, and said it was obviously not a significant factor in the split. She said the councils have differing philosophies about what is good for their towns, and her council would have no appetite to be involved in Maple Ridge’s “spending spree.”

She said Pitt Meadows residents would not be happy to pay a share of operating costs for facilities that “are not of any real benefit to us in Pitt Meadows.”

When the agreement was fashioned, both cities were more cut off from neighbouring municipalities than they are after bridge building and upgrades.

“It’s completely different geography than when the agreement started,” she said.

Pitt Meadows had been slated to build a new aquatic centre, but a consultant pointed out that Port Coquitlam will soon unveil a $100 million upgrade to its pool facilities, which could serve Pitt residents, and advised Pitt Meadows council to not proceed on its own pool.

“Greg Moore is quite happy for us to use their pool, at no extra cost to our residents compared to their residents,” Elkerton of the Port Coquitlam mayor, adding that pools are always subsidized, and admission fees help pay for them.

Read generally agrees that the two municipalities have differing approaches to recreation spending.

“It became very clear to both of our councils that we are going in different directions,” she said.

Pitt Meadows’ has reached build-out, and its population will remain stagnant, while Maple Ridge grew by more than 10 per cent from 2006-2011, and is expecting tens of thousands more new residents in the coming decades.

She foreshadowed the infrastructure spending when she announced the split, with the comment: “For us, the most important thing is for our staff and council to be able to focus wholeheartedly on building a really amazing sports community in Maple Ridge.”

Pitt Meadows is building its own independent parks and recreation department with the help of a consultant, and Becker said he hopes that the two longtime partners will still be able to cooperate on many services and management.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t continue paying Maple Ridge for things like the arena booking service,” he said. “Hopefully, the logic and equities of those relationships will survive.”

 

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