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Ice Would be Nice but What About the Common Good?

I live in a small town reeling like many places. Lots of conflicting interests. Increasing demand for more services with little appetite to pay. A desire to live here but a lack of affordable housing. A preference for green grass in the midst of a water shortage. The need for a fair shake in what can feel like a rather unfair reality. And then there are those who want an indoor ice rink.


Photo: Wally Dever Arena, Belleville, Ontario

Yes, in spite of the many social, environmental, and economic challenges we are experiencing in our little corner of the world, the flavor of the day that consumes the editorial section of our newspaper and council agendas month after month is the “need” for an indoor ice rink.

So, I figured I would choose to write to my local city council and provide what would likely be a different perspective than what they were hearing from others about the “need” for a rink. Below I share excerpts from that very letter.


As you read on, feel free to consider the ice rink as a metaphor. Could be a recreation center, more sports fields, a pickleball complex, etc. And while each of these may be considered as nice to have, the questions really come down to what can be afforded, should investments in these amenities trump the imposing interests and issues that affect the greater good, and ultimately, where should government’s reach end.


If anything here resonates or may help you in your work in your community, please reach out. I’d love to connect.

 

Distinguished Members of City Council…


The abstraction of community has become increasingly problematic when it comes to rationalizing and justifying special interest expectations and resulting investments. When a small but vocal group of individuals suggest the “community” will benefit from whatever it is that represents their interest (in this case, an ice rink), it bears deeper analysis including understanding that this abstraction can lead to poor decisions on behalf of the real and broader community who are eventually expected to foot the bill. It’s funny how a small contingent of vocal people can wield influence under the mantle of “community.”


Let’s start with the ice rink and basic economics. A continuing song is being sung by local special interests suggesting our town needs an indoor rink that this community, frankly, cannot afford. Indoor ice rinks are among the biggest infrastructure liabilities any public entity can assume; therefore, would not be a sensical investment choice for our fair city. And this is only half of it.


When facility construction and other human habitat costs such as roads/access, parking lots, and water and sewer, and the ongoing operational and maintenance costs for the life of a physical asset are calculated, this would be an unsustainable investment. Across the country, limiting perspective only to construction estimates leads to unrealistic and dangerous investments that have stretched public systems beyond what they can afford - particularly when made to satisfy small portions of today’s residents yet paid for on the backs of 2050’s citizens. Assuming long-term liabilities that overextend capacity are now being called out more than ever as irresponsible, damaging, and unethical, and have ultimately left some communities once prosperous and focused on having something for everyone on the brink of bankruptcy. Of course, these would be moot points if the City Council expected an indoor ice rink to recover all of its costs so as not to pass on these expenses to all taxpayers and compromise community investment in more pressing needs.


It has been said that politicians cannot have the pleasure of spending without the pain of taxation. It is easy to dig holes and cut ribbons – and, while less popular to do the math and understand and accept limitations, telling people “no” may ultimately be the responsible and smart choice. All who represent governments at any level have the pleasure and burden of being a steward of taxpayer dollars. Each and everyday employees and the City Council consider and make decisions to spend taxpayer dollars. The expectation is that these investment choices are thoughtful, intelligent, and consider immediate as well as long term impacts on the financial sustainability and livability of the community.


Should the city be in the business of providing “everything for everyone”? In what types of services should the city invest and what is it that should be left to the non-profit and private sectors? A common rationale we’ve heard throughout ongoing discussion and debate is that the city should build the ice rink as it would not be a smart business decision for other sectors. Well, isn’t that interesting.


There is a great model and Venn Diagram known as “Pick Two” used in contemporary livable community planning. Simply, one circle represents density or quantity. A second circle represents high levels of service or quality while the third represents stable taxes and fees. Only two of these circles can be chosen as it is not possible to have all three. For example, if someone wants high quality of service and stable taxes and fees, they will have to accept that the quantity offered needs to be less. Alternatively, if they want more while keeping taxes and fees stable, quality of service will suffer. And, if their desire is to have more and a high quality of service, they will have to pay more.


So, if an ice rink is to be added to the city’s menu of services, which of the two remaining circles will be compromised? Will overall service levels be impacted due to fragmentation of resources now that a new facility has been added? Or, will fees/taxes be increased to pay for this rink (either ice rink users will pay for the construction, maintenance, and operations of the facility for as long as it stands or these costs will need to be passed along to all who live in our community for the life of the rink)? You have to choose.


If the past 15 years taught us nothing else, we should know by now that the economy is volatile and unpredictable – and is dependent upon and influenced by human behavior. When intelligent decisions are made, rewards tend to follow. When poor choices are made, there is often a price to pay. How much is paid depends on how poor and shortsighted the decision happened to be.


It’s hard not to appreciate where we live. The first creative arts district in the state, small business centric with few chains, ground-breaking public health initiatives, a beautiful downtown steeped in a rich history, an outdoor playground surrounded by 680,000 acres of public lands and an iconic river that runs through town that is the most commercially rafted in the US, 300+ days of sunshine, and a year-round tourism scene. These characteristics and others speak to the uniqueness of this place.


And while these qualities sound wonderful on the surface, what makes this town special has also contributed to its most daunting economic, environmental, and social challenges. More remote workers, an older population with fewer and fewer young families, an influx of cash buyers from other states that has led to out of reach housing prices that have left many unable to keep a roof over their heads, business owners struggling to find and/or retain employees, a semi-arid and ever changing climate that continues to contribute to wildfire threats, and liabilities which exceed revenues speak to a complex reality.


So, what should our investment priorities be? As you contemplate whether an indoor ice rink is the most responsible and ethical investment choice for the city and its taxpayers in light of all that is happening, I respectfully request that each of you ponder the following. Are you as a City Council member willing to stand up and step away from agendas that are self-interest driven and set a standard for our community that begins and ends with focusing on what is best for our collective “common good” and not just those who think that ice would be nice?


Jamie Sabbach is President & Principal with 110% Inc., a consulting firm which focuses on ethical decision making, adaptive leadership, and the financial sustainability of public parks and recreation. She can be reached at jsabbach@110percent.net.

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