Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Michael Brydon: Penticton taxpayers are being taken for a ride

I have not been updating the blog regularly. Half the problem is that the Western News only recently (as far as I can tell) restarted publishing letters on its website. The other half of the problem is that I have been very busy with other things.

Below is my latest submission to The Herald. (slightly updated 03 Mar 08)

It looks like Penticton taxpayers are being taken for another long and expensive ride. The committee for the construction of the South Okanagan Performing Arts Centre (SOPAC) has recently sketched a grand vision for a 750-seat auditorium on the old Nanaimo Hall site. Although some cost estimates for the facility are in the $30M-$40M range, the SOPAC committee has convinced city leaders that this money will fall from the sky and that there will be no impact on local taxpayers. They point to the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre and argue that we, too, deserve a state-of-the-art facility. However, the SOPAC committee has somehow neglected to mention that the taxpayers of Greater Vernon fork out $1.18M each year to subsidize their theatre. The story is similar in other communities across Canada. Burlington, Ontario, for example, has received only $2.5M in federal support for its proposed $36M 718-seat performing arts centre. Local taxpayers in Burlington are being told that they are on the hook for between $14M-$18M.

The disconnect between what is being promised in Penticton and reality in other communities means that one of two things is true: Either the good people of Vernon and Burlington lack the moxie and “horsepower” to raise external money or the SOPAC folks in Penticton have no real idea of what they are talking about. Given that these are the same people who promised City Council nine months ago that the SOPAC would be fully funded and up and running in 24 months, it is pretty easy to envision this all going very badly for the average Penticton taxpayer. Indeed, here is how I see it unfolding: a gullible city council will continue to cling to the belief that a new performing arts facility can be built with external funds even though the SOPAC group has produced no business plan, secured no external funding, and has refused to even estimate the facility’s final cost. Untroubled by their complete lack of reliable information and unwilling to do their own due diligence, the city will make important decisions based on the belief that the SOPAC will somehow materialize. As the first order of business, they will ensure that the former Pen-Hi auditorium is reduced to rubble in order to eliminate all competition for the new theatre (the former Pen-Hi gym will be mere collateral damage in all this). Then, once the irreversible decisions have been made, the city will discover that a new performing arts facility costs much more than anticipated and that senior levels of government will contribute much less than anticipated. Pointing to sunk costs and the city’s shameful lack of a large venue for the performing arts, our leaders will argue that the only way to go is forward. Property taxes will be increased, water and electricity fees may suddenly spike and—stop me if you have heard this one before—a mind-numbing budgetary shell game involving reserve accounts and unused borrowing headroom will be unleashed on taxpayers in order to convince them that the millions of dollars of city money required to complete the SOPAC is a figment of their imaginations.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the taxpayers of Penticton are currently in the mood for another large, expensive, non-essential capital project. Clearly, the Mayor and his close cadre of advisors think they have a smashingly good plan. But who is representing the interests of everyone else? What about the many young kids in this town who do not play varsity sports and therefore have no after-hours access to their school gyms? Apparently, city leaders look at the headlines about childhood inactivity, crystal meth, and other youth problems and conclude that we have plenty of gym space. I guess they figure more talk and some bumper stickers will solve these problems. And what about the school board? Do they really believe that unobstructed sightlines to the new Pen-Hi and a particular configuration of student parking are more important than providing kids with venues for cultural and recreational activities? Or does the school board’s commitment to youth end at 3:30 PM, Monday to Friday?

I certainly do not pretend to speak for the many diverse citizens who have come together to voice dismay at the city and school board’s unwillingness to save the Pen-Hi buildings. But I do have a couple of suggestions for our city leaders. First let’s do something we have not done to this point and hold the SOPAC committee accountable for its promises. Given that the city’s plan hinges on the SOPAC’s feasibility, we need to see and discuss a real business plan with real numbers. If they can do no better than “we are talking to potential sources of funding” or “arts is the key to the new urban economy”, or “Jimmy Pattison might donate”, I suggest we acknowledge that a fully-funded new theatre is a fantasy and adopt something like the Vernon or Burlington scenarios as our mostly likely base case. Second, let’s hold a referendum on this base case to see whether Penticton taxpayers are willing to contribute a couple of million every year to subsidize a state-of-the-art performing arts centre. Naturally, the referendum should be held before our only realistic alternative to the SOPAC is paved over. Third, if our leaders are not prepared to subject their political instincts to democratic validation, or if the result of the referendum is a resounding “no”, the city should immediately cut its losses. It should sell the land it donated for the SOPAC and use the proceeds of the sale to upgrade the Pen-Hi auditorium, fund youth programs in the Pen-Hi gymnasium, expand seniors-oriented programs such as Healthy Heart in the Community Centre gymnasium, and pay off some of the debt incurred by the last project that was supposed to have no impact on local taxpayers. In other words, the city should get its head out of the clouds, live within its means, and allocate scarce resources to where they can do the most good for the whole community.