With a municipal election looming, opponents to the Vancouver Park Board’s elected officials are alleging that the organization has lost its independence from City Hall.
At the heart of the matter are $5.2 million in city-approved cuts to the parks and recreation operating budget since 2009, for which political adversaries blame a “lack of advocacy” on the part of current Park Board commissioners with ties to Vision and COPE.
The Park Board’s operating budget increased by nearly 10 per cent from 2006 to 2009. Beginning that year, the City of Vancouver initiated an effort to centralize services and departments – the Board included – under City Manager Penny Ballem.
Parks and recreation cutbacks have since required the shutdown of the Stanley Park Shuttle and Children’s Farmyard, and a reduction in services like the mowing of grass in some sections of parks and boulevards.
‘Just not acceptable’
For the Non-Partisan Association, the independence issue is a pillar in a campaign aimed at supplanting the current Park Board administration.
“Really, it’s about advocacy. It’s about the Park Board being able to deal with its own plans,” said NPA candidate Dave Pasin.
“The Vision plan of having everything run through, or report to, the city manager, is just not acceptable,” he added.
The Park Board All-Candidates Meeting, which took place Nov. 6 at Kerrisdale Community Centre, was never branded a debate. But Park Board Chair Aaron Jasper nonetheless found himself on the defensive.
“The independence of the board is not under threat,” he asserted. “People can argue with the choices that we’ve made, and that’s a fair debate to have. But the independence of the board is a bit of a red herring, as far as I’m concerned.”
Jasper emphasized that money is tight, a reality he blamed largely on the financial crisis of 2008. The cuts represent less than 2 per cent of the Park Board’s total operating budget (roughly $300 million combined) for the three years in question, he added.
Profits from yoga and pilates
Over 2011 the city removed $730,000 of funding from Park Board services – just over 1 per cent of the taxpayer-funded portion of the operating budget.
Jasper went on to account for a controversial attempt by the Park Board this year to recover some of those dollars from community centre associations.
He pointed out that the Board is responsible for paying the “lion’s share” of staffing and building maintenance costs, while community centre associations are permitted to keep the profit they generate from yoga, pilates, and other successful programs.
“We don’t think it’s unfair that, when times are tough, money gets ponied back into the central pot,” he explained.
According to the city’s consolidated financial report for 2010, Vancouver was $119.4 million in the black last year. NPA candidates Pasin, John Coupar and Gabby Kalaw argued that the surplus should have obviated any reductions to the Park Board budget.
However, Jasper maintained that the “cost of doing business” and debt have climbed and that both ought to be taken into account in a fair evaluation of the cuts.
The city’s net debt increased by nearly 8 per cent from 2009-10, when it reached $349 million.
Power of the purse
Independent Park Board candidate Jamie Lee Hamilton wants to overhaul the city-subsidized revenue model completely.
“[Under the current system], when council’s got shortfalls for their budget, they basically cut services to the Park Board,” she said.
“That’s why we really have to have an independent, autonomous [Park] Board that receives a portion of the tax base, and has some control over its own public assets.”
Hamilton made clear that the proposed Park Board tax would not be additional, but rather would represent a separated portion of the current city property tax.
“That way, it’s the taxpayer that determines what the Park Board budget will be, and not Council,” said Hamilton. She believes such a direct, power-of-the-purse system would make the Board’s general manager more accountable to the elected commissioners, instead of the unelected city manager.
“If [the Board commissioners] don’t manage the public’s money properly, the public will vote [them] out. It’s quite simple.”
For her part, Vision Park Board candidate Niki Sharma believes political opponents of the current Park Board administration are making more of the independence issue than they should.
She pointed to the $60 million in federal infrastructure funding the organization received in 2009. Although the 2010 Winter Olympics was also a key factor in the federal government’s decision to chip in, she credits the advocacy of Board commissioners at the federal level for securing those dollars.
“I feel like it’s really unfair,” she said of the allegations that the board has lost its independence. “I’ve heard that a lot, and I feel like it’s become the token campaign issue.”