(Today’s Northumberland file photo)
By Jeff Gard/Today’s Northumberland
Cobourg council challenged town staff to make some difficult suggestions for its 2023 budget and heard some of those ideas during the community services presentation at its Jan. 26 Divisional Staff Budget Presentation Meeting.
Director of Community Services Brian Geerts made five suggestions under the Cost Avoidance and Savings portion of his presentation, including closing the outdoor Centennial Pool for the 2023 season and removing the beach lifeguard service for the entire season as well. Both services are provided by YMCA Northumberland, he noted.
Geerts noted the lifeguards would normally be on duty during the season (late June until Labour Day) from 12 to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekend days.
“I’m proposing that we remove that entire service,” he said.
In addition to the season closure, Geerts is also proposing Centennial Pool to be decommissioned in 2024.
“We have an excellent working relationship with the Y who provides both of these services, both lifeguards and the operation of Centennial Pool and I don’t want my proposal here to colour the relationship or the great work that they do in the community, but from a financial perspective these are options for us to consider,” Geerts said.
Today’s Northumberland contacted the YMCA’s main Cobourg location to seek comment, but was told to direct questions to the town as the YMCA only provides staffing to Centennial Pool, but the town manages it. A follow-up e-mail to YMCA Northumberland CEO Eunice Kirkpatrick hadn’t been returned as of the time this story was published.
Centennial Pool is another facility for YMCA members to use as included in their membership. Non-members can also pay a fee to use the pool. Summer swimming lessons and lifeguard training programs are also held at the pool. It’s unclear if those programs could be move to the indoor pool during the summer.
Closing Centennial Pool this year wasn’t considered in the first draft of the budget, Geerts said at the Jan. 26 meeting, but added it was already flagged to be closed in 2025. He advanced that timeline following a more detailed review of the town’s financial position.
Geerts said the outdoor pool has been in operation since 1967 and has served its time.
“Over the years it’s been very inexpensively run and you could also read in that we have not invested in it very much so the building is for the most part the way it was in 1967 – very basic service, good for its time but it’s also run its course so at some point we need to talk about, whether it’s in 2023 or future years, what is the role of a seasonal pool like that,” Geerts said. “Would we like to replace it, would we incorporate it into a different kind of indoor aquatics facility that gets used up all year round, what is the interface between the waterfront pool service and the beach – do we need both of those things there together? None of that has had much public discussion to date so I realize this is a new proposal, but those are some of the questions I thought would be valid to ask at this time.”
Mayor Lucas Cleveland asked what the savings would be to move forward without the pool or beach lifeguards. Geerts estimated around $100,000 in savings for not having beach lifeguards and around $115,000 for closing the pool.
“Just for context, the Centennial Pool budget does include some revenue that it generates such as Y memberships that allow entrants. There are some paid entry as well that generates $8,500 in revenue for the season,” Geerts said.
Resident Meghan Thomas has started a petition online that states: “This pool is an important facility for swimming lessons, fitness, and recreation and allows Cobourg residents and visitors to make the most of being outdoors during the summer season. Outdoor physical activity is crucial to our well-being and allows those at risk of respiratory disease a low-risk option for exercise (as compared with exercising indoors). There is a lack of public outdoor pools in our region and this pool is used by many residents of the surrounding area.”
It’s available at Petition · STOP the closure of Cobourg’s Centennial Pool! · Change.org
There were no other questions or comments from council members about Centennial Pool or the beach lifeguards proposals.
They were focused on the other suggestions in Geerts’ presentation regarding cost savings, which were a new user fee to plant new trees on boulevards (formerly a tax-funded service), no park tree planting unless donated and for the Legion Field food service (canteen) to remain closed.
Regarding the new user fee for trees, Geerts explained in the past if a tree reached the end of its lifespan, town employees would show up and remove tree and stump and could plant a new tree as part of tax-funded services provided. With this proposal, residents would be charged for a new tree.
“For example, all of the residents that lost a boulevard town-owned tree in the December storm, in the spring they would have to buy a tree,” he said.
Deputy Mayor Nicole Beatty said the boulevards are municipally-owned and taxpayers are already asked to maintain them in regards to grass cutting and snow clearing and the trees in this proposal are on municipal property.
“Some people see it as taking away a municipal service on municipal property,” Beatty said. “The boulevard is technically the property of the municipality is it not?”
Geerts agreed and said “for absolute clarity, this is a service reduction.”
In addition, there is no money proposed in the 2023 budget to plant new trees in parks. Trees would have to donated from an individual or organization.
Councillor Adam Bureau mentioned the previous council previously put in extra money for tree planting and that would be taken away with this proposed plan.
“We do have an Urban Forest Master Plan and it has tree planting goals within it as part of our maintenance and growth of the town’s tree canopy,” Geerts said. “We would be delaying those goals. We would not meet those goals on time.”
Councillor Miriam Mutton asked Geerts why he thought this was even an option to include the different tree proposals.
“The reason it’s an option because we’re in a difficult financial position this year so I did very carefully look at options where we can reduce funds,” Geerts said. “The alternative I could’ve proposed that we keep some of the tree planting and reduced maintenance, but I strongly believe in our asset management principles and obligations and I don’t want us to create more assets that we’re not committed to maintaining. I want to maintain what we have and if we have the will to grow and add to new assets then we would also maintain those assets as well.”
Mutton followed up saying this suggestion would be contrary to what Cobourg as a municipality and its citizens have worked toward for a long time and wanted stats from Geerts and to hear from the forestry division.
“It’s a different way of thinking, but for me it basically suggests quite strongly that we don’t value the natural environment and our parks systems. That’s a blunt statement, but as someone who donated a tree, I’m just thinking maybe I should ask for my $700 back.”
The mayor responded he doesn’t think that’s the case, but understands Mutton’s points.
“Many in the community will agree with you. I think where director Geerts is getting to here and I commend him for thinking outside the box, it’s our job as council to say no and yes to what we can while also protecting the financial duty that we have to our tax base,” Cleveland said. “No one likes these decisions and fair point to the issues you have with them. I’m saying okay if we want to keep the tree plans going, let’s as a council do that, but then what aren’t we going to do in order to allow that to happen.
“We have asked our staff to make some very difficult suggestions to us coming into these meetings. This was not an easy process for anyone which is why everything got pushed back in the budget, it’s why we’re meeting now and not two weeks earlier. I just want to be very, very careful as we proceed that we commend our staff for making very, very bold recommendations. We don’t have to agree with them, but commenting that we don’t care about trees because we’re looking to save money for a year I think is a bit of an overstatement. It’s the same thing I spoke to with transit (the mayor referred to it as a luxury) – I’m not for it, I’m not against it – but as the council we have to decide is what we can afford to do and what we can’t afford to do and if we have to take a year off tree planting in order to build room in the budget so next year we can do double the tree planting potentially, I’m all for it and we can decide that as a council moving forward through this budget process.”
Mutton responded saying what the mayor described about deferring tree planting for a year is not what the proposal is.
“I didn’t hear that it’s a suspension of service for a year,” she said. “What I heard was that this was a totally new way of looking at it and I think that at least one other member of council understood that appropriately.”
Mutton didn’t think there was enough information to have informed discussion on the topic.
Councillor Brian Darling said staff are asked to bring suggestions forward and “we don’t want to beat staff up because they bring a suggestion forward. Our goal is to look at the suggestions and decide what we’re going to keep and what we’re not. I fully agree with Councillor Mutton. I’d hate to see the tree planting end forever. Am I in favour of this or not, I’m not sure at this time. I need more information, but we’ve got decisions to make and right now is not the time to debate it. Right now all we’re having is an overview presentation.”
Mayor Cleveland echoed the sentiment and noted “the reason the information seems brief today is because this is essentially an overview, an introduction to some new ideas and staff will be prepared to provide detailed case scenarios for the detailed discussions on February 7.”
As part of the final proposal for cost avoidance and savings, Geerts said while the Legion Fields canteen would not be open, the building would still be maintained and washrooms open.
Councillor Darling asked if there’s been any thought to continuing food service at Legion Field, such as if a sports organization wanted to operate it to raise money.
“I know there there’s groups out there, teams whatnot that if they found out this wasn’t going to run, might want to step forward,” Darling said. “Is that feasible if we let them know that it’s not going to run?”
Geerts said it’s certainly a consideration.
“The canteen services there have been run by volunteers and contractors in the past. The reason you see the reduction in the budget is because we won’t be staffing it ourselves,” he said. “We do have an RFP being renewed for our waterfront food truck services. We have three spaces for the waterfront, last season we had two vendors there. We’ll be renewing that RFP and including Legion Fields as an option so whether they would physically use the building or if there’s a way they bring their own food service trailer there and set that up instead.”
Cobourg council will hold its Operating and Capital Budget Review meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 7 beginning at 10 a.m.