By: Donovan Vincent, city hall bureau
Published: February 07, 2008
Source: The Star\\ To read the article in The Star
A controversial proposal that called for raising permit fees for city ice rinks, sports fields and pools by an average 21.5 per cent is off the table, with Toronto Mayor David Miller saying he doesn't support it.
"It's not my perspective, I don't think fees for the rinks should go up 21 per cent, and I'm sure the budget committee will address that,'' Miller told reporters yesterday.
"We were briefed about this issue shortly before the budget launch. I don't agree with this direction. I don't think members of the budget committee agree, and I think they are going to come in with some recommendations for some more moderate fee increases,'' the mayor said, declining to elaborate on how big the increase might be.
Miller was busy yesterday defending charges that he wasn't completely upfront on Jan. 28, when the city's 2008 operating budget was introduced. Last week, Miller hailed it as a balanced budget, making no mention of permit fee hikes. His announcement yesterday came only after some councillors voiced opposition during budget committee hearings and loud complaints were heard from the public.
"The budget launch was about the big picture of the budget, and that's what we spoke to" last week, he said, adding that permit fees can be ironed out.
The proposed average 21.5 per cent increase in permit fees would have generated nearly $2.1 million in revenues this year.
"I've been asked to explore all means to address this,'' said Brenda Librecz, the department's general manager.
The recreation department had recommended permit fee hikes as part of the Jan. 28 budget, but many councillors say they weren't aware of that critical detail until this past weekend.
Councillor Maria Augimeri, a budget committee member, and Councillor Janet Davis, who doesn't sit on the committee, both said Monday that they hadn't known about the proposed hikes until then.
Miller said information wasn't kept from anyone.
"I don't accept any of this was hidden. It wasn't," he said.
Councillor Joe Mihevc, who chairs the committee that oversees parks and recreation, told reporters Tuesday that he first learned of the plan when the city's budget was presented last week.
But he modified that in an interview with the Star yesterday, saying that "upon reflection'' he now recalls hearing the 21.5 per cent figure mentioned during a budget committee briefing in the fall.
Librecz said her department provided detailed budget reviews during that period, and the mayor's office was also kept apprised.
"I'm not hiding anything here,'' she said yesterday.
The issue of permit fee increases has been contentious since the beginning of the year.
On Jan. 7 the city rolled out its Everybody Gets to Play proposal, a plan to improve access to recreation programs for low-income residents.
To pay for that, the city plans to increase its "cost recovery" for recreation programs – how much it gets back in user fees – from 30 per cent to 50 per cent by 2014. That would mean raising program fees an average of 21 per cent this year, and 10 per cent for each of the next six years.
At the time, city officials backed away from a Star report that suggested permit fees would also increase significantly. Permit fees would be dealt with separately as part of the budget process, they countered.
The proposal to increase recreation program fees is still on the table and being dealt with outside the city's operating budget deliberations. That idea has garnered little public opposition, unlike the permit fee plan.
Late Monday, after news of proposed increases for permits got out, groups like the Greater Toronto Hockey League slammed the city, saying the fees are already high enough.
On Tuesday, Mihevc explained why the city wanted to keep discussion of permits separate from Everybody gets to Play.
"We did not want ..., especially as we were going into community consultations with folks around the policy and the architecture of Everyone gets to Play, to have that debate confused by angry parents of hockey children," he told reporters. "So that's why we separated the two issues out."