Public pushes to keep Edmonton pools, arenas off the chopping block

·4 min read

Three Edmonton pools and two arenas on the chopping block in Edmonton's 2021 budget won't be closed without a fight.

City council heard from about 80 people at a public hearing Thursday into the city's capital and operating budgets.

The majority of council favour a zero per cent property tax increase next year and to reach that, administration has identified $64 million in savings in its approximately $3 billion operating budget.

Closing Oliver, Scona and Eastglen pools and the Oliver and Tipton arenas will save the city an estimated $1.2 million in operating costs.

But community members are lobbying the city to keep them open until they come up with an alternative.

A teacher from Strathcona High School who works with the swim team, Ryan de Boer, said 180 students were part of the team last year and they rely on Scona Pool for practice.

De Boer said the school has a lot of pride in the aquatics program, having won 34 city championships.

"If our pool was to close, unfortunately, we are pretty aware that our swim team would have to fold," De Boer said. "Which is a shame because it's something that's got a lot of continuity.

"Older siblings get their younger siblings to join this team because of the success and the positive experiences that they've had, so this makes a huge difference in their lives."

The Queen Alexandra Community League is championing funding for another smaller, community-focused Rollie Miles Rec Centre, which would replace Scona Pool.

City of Edmonton/webstream
City of Edmonton/webstream

Lisa Brown with the Oliver Community League, said a survey last year shows high demand for the outdoor pool there.

"Oliver pool is loved by our community," it is the most popular recreation amenity in the whole neighbourhood, as well as Oliver Park."

The city closed Oliver pool in 2019 to repair the drainage system. She argued that closing the pool would be a waste of that investment.

City council has approved many new towers in Oliver over the past few years, creating some 4,500 housing units, Brown said.

"We need more parks and more recreation amenities in Oliver, not less."

John Mervyn, a city employee with CUPE local 30, joined the meeting to urge council to review its contracted services.

For example, he said the city used to run its own tire shop but now, that service is contracted out.

"When a vehicle gets sent to have a tire fixed, it comes back with four new tires rather than just having one fixed."

He also made the case to keep community sports facilities open.

"Fitness and recreation are important to Edmontonians, especially right now, and they'll be needing them to help them get through these difficult times," he said.

Members from Edmonton adult ice users and power skating also chimed in to keep arenas open.

Other cuts

The city says it could save $100,000 by eliminating spay and neuter services.

Karin Nelson with the Voice for Animals Society, asked council to keep the program.

"Cutting this program would be an absolute disaster, in terms of the stray and feral cat population levels," Nelson said.

The city is looking at reducing the number of transit peace officers in development services, professional standards oversight, municipal enforcement responsibilities and administrative support services, for an estimated savings of $1.1 million.

"These reductions may have some impact on citizens, including slower response times for enforcement issues," the report says.

Other areas the city plans to cut are fireworks on New Year's Eve, Canada Day and Family Day.

Staffing at spray parks and skateboard parks, youth drop-in programs are also on the list.

Janet Riopel, president and CEO of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, was one of the few speakers who lauded the city's attempts at trimming its programs.

Riopel noted that nearly 50 per cent of businesses have laid off staff and another 20 per cent expect to lay off staff in the coming months.

She championed the city's goal of zero per cent property tax increase and said the city is being flexible and adaptable in its approach to budgeting.

That includes exploring partnerships with non-profit and private entities to run rec centres.

"It's the right move and it would reduce the cost burden on taxpayers," Riopel said.

City administration is expected to present one-time COVID-19 specific budget measures at a meeting next week.

Council starts debating the capital and operating budgets on Monday and is expected to pass them by Dec. 11.