2016 Municipal Budget Preview: Parks, Recreation, and Forestry
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2016 Municipal Budget Preview: Parks, Recreation, and Forestry

In advance of the City's budget launch, we analyze the needs at Parks, Recreation, and Forestry.

Toronto’s vast network of pools, arenas, splash pads, community centres, golf courses, playgrounds, beaches, and trails—not to mention 8,091 hectares of parkland—are one of the city’s crowning achievements. Our collective backyard, these shared spaces are valued at $6 billion in assets to the City. Unsurprisingly, growing these spaces and keeping existing facilities in a state of good repair costs a penny or two.

Thankfully, Toronto’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR) budget has been steadily growing. From 2007 to 2015, the PFR budget expanded from $227.4 million to $307.6 million, an increase of 35 per cent. The 6.5 per cent growth experienced from 2014 to 2015 is typical of the year-over-year increase seen in the PFR budget.

Last year saw typical pressures on the park budget, mostly in the form of prior year commitments that had to be paid out and cost of living pay increases for staff. Some programs and services are seeing growth, too. More than $7.3 million, for example, was spent in 2015 to expand free programs at community centres, create eight new after-school recreation centres and enhance four youth lounges; all were programs approved in 2014. Similarly, $8.1 million was spent this year as part of an eight-year effort to combat the invasive emerald ash borer, begun in 2011.

What does 2016 hold for the city’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation department? Where does their money come from? How do they spend it?

Operating Budget

The PFR operating budget is broken into three categories: community recreation, parks and urban forestry. Community recreation—the drop-in and registered programs and permits for sports fields—eats up the lion’s share of the budget at $150 million. Money for parks, beachesm and zoos receive $117 million while urban forestry, everything from tree planting and protection to maintenance, gets the remaining $39 million. Approximately 70 per cent of the park budget comes from property taxes.

Expect previous year funding and cost of living increases to put the greatest pressure on the 2016 budget as they did in 2015. This year, salaries and benefits ate up 66 per cent of the parks budget and $8.878 million of the additional $18.670 million added to the PFR budget from 2014 to 2015. But let’s be honest—a city can’t operate ferries, after-school programs, splash pads or zoos without trained and experienced employees.

And the importance of retaining staff is seen in how popular the services offered by the city are. Sixteen thousand trips to the Toronto Islands ferried 1.2 million people there in 2014. More than 4.9 million people took advantage of drop-in recreation programs. Meanwhile, 4.5 million individuals signed up for recreational and educational programs, an increase of nearly 200,000 registrants since 2012. That figure is expected to grow by another 100,000 in 2016.

Capital Budget

Next year’s parks budget will reflect the priorities set down in the 2015-2024 Recommended Capital Budget and Plan. To preserve and protect existing park facilities and spaces and build new infrastructure while replacing those no longer worth keeping, $1.156 billion has been earmarked for the PFR capital budget over the next 10 years.

The projected budget laid out in the Capital Budget and Plan for 2016 is $92 million, a figure that fluctuates each year from $75 to $124 million over the life of the plan, depending on the projects scheduled.

Highlights of the Recommended Capital Budget and Plan include purchasing two new ferry boats to take people to the Toronto Islands (at a cost of approximately $11 million each), building a new pool at the Wellesley Community Centre and replacing the crumbling Don Mills Civitan Arena ($24.5 million) first constructed in 1961. Over a 10-year timeline, the City also expects to build the York ($10.8 million) and Regent Park ($10.1 million) community centres.

New debt funding of $652.1 million makes up 56 per cent of the 10-year capital funding plan with capital financing and funding accounting for the bulk of the remainder.

State of Good Repair

As we consider the long-term parks and recreation projects the City has in the works throughout Toronto, it’s important not to lose sight of maintaining in good repair what we already have. While the city hasn’t failed on this front, it has certainly fallen behind.

Projected repair backlogs for the city’s park amenities currently sits at $350 million, roughly 12.5 per cent of their asset value to the city. To slow down the wasting away of city resources, the 2015 Capital Budget and Plan projected $625.748 million in state of good repair funding to address the backlog and reduce the percentage of asset value from 12.5 to 3.4 per cent.

Torontonians experience the benefits of a robust parks budget beyond interfacing with city Parks and Recreation staff at the local swimming pool or skating rink. Half a million was put into planting 105,000 new trees to help the city’s valuable canopy regain some of what was lost in the devastating 2013 ice storm; eight blue flag beaches are groomed daily during the summer months; keeping washrooms open in parks until late in the evening, grooming baseball diamonds, tacking away trash along trail routes, keeping those trials in good repair—this is what Parks, Forestry and Recreation provides for the people of Toronto.