An op-ed on how Toronto should fund its priorities, and leave the corporate largesse to more needy towns.
— John Tory (@JohnTory) March 14, 2016
On the surface, you wouldn’t think there’d be much in common between Flemingdon Park and Dundas, Ontario, or Conception Bay South, Newfoundland and Labrador. Aside from their population–they’re all in the 22,000–25,000 range–there’s very little similarity between the west coast of the Avalon Peninsula and a no-longer-independent old Upper Canada town, or between either of them and high rise Toronto.
But what Dundas and Conception Bay South do share is that they’re both past winners of the Kraft “Hockeyville” contest, which earned them $100,000 in upgrades to their local arena (among other prizes). This year, Flemingdon Park’s Angela James Arena is among ten finalists for that same prize, with a boost Monday from Toronto Mayor John Tory as the competition hit its final day.
Winning contests feels nice, as does receiving free things. But in the context of how Toronto funds its community services, the Hockeyville competition raises a number of troubling questions for how we build and pay for a better city.
If the notion of relying on corporate largesse to deliver recreation services in Toronto feels familiar, well, you’re not wrong. In 2007, a $160,000 donation from Mastercard made it possible for the city’s outdoor rinks to open a month early. In 2014, it was $270,000 from Scotiabank and Canadian Tire that kept 11 outdoor rinks open when Toronto had the temerity to be, you know, cold in the winter. And just last year, it was $100,000 each from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and Tim Hortons that allowed a dozen outdoor rinks to stay open longer than first planned (Tim Hortons took the place of city contractor Green for Life after an embarrassing little conflict-of-interest hiccup caused GFL to withdraw their offer).
To their credit, city council took action last July, and directed the creation of a contingency fund in the 2016 budget [PDF] to make sure that we could always have outdoor rinks when weather permits. It wasn’t exactly implemented the same way that council said it should be, but change has to start somewhere.
Yet funding our recreation needs remains a problem. It’s 2016, and the mayor of Canada’s largest and wealthiest city is serving as huckster-in-chief, stumping for votes to win a contest so that we can fix up a city-owned arena. This comes less than a month after shepherding a budget through council which wound up featuring a property tax revenue increase that didn’t keep pace with inflation.
Angela James Arena is an important part of a priority neighbourhood, and between the poor heating, leaky roof, and 50-year-old amenities, there’s no doubt it needs some care and attention. How about we actually make that a priority and find some money for it in the budget? Because for communities like Martensville, Saskatchewan, Saint-Isidore, Quebec, and Okotoks, Alberta–all among Hockeyville’s final ten–winning that $100,000 may well be their only options to deliver these services to their communities. But in Toronto, $100,000 is just slightly more than 0.03% of Parks, Forestry and Recreation’s net budget this year. It’s a rounding error, even if we never seem to be able to round upwards when it comes to funding. We should be able to fix Angela James Arena and a dozen more just like it.
So maybe–just maybe–your Hockeyville vote was better cast for Lumby, British Columbia or Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia. Seriously, isn’t Tatamagouche a great name? Shouldn’t they win for that alone?
And maybe–just maybe–before 2018 rolls around, we should all consider how we plan to use our real votes. Do we want a city where we want to make people’s lives better every day, and we’re honest about needing to find ways to pay for that? Or do we want a city driven only by numbers rather than needs, regressing bit by bit every day because we’re unwilling to pay for anything we want?
It doesn’t seem like much of a contest.