Is city council ready to wade back into the aquatic centre debate?

The idea of a multi-purpose aquatic centre being built in Red Deer before the 2019 Canada Winter Games may not be dead in the water despite getting zero funding in the city’s new capital budget. The wiggle room has everything to do with the City of Red Deer’s good financial position, and whether council is willing to see the city take on more debt during a period of low interest rates.

The idea of a multi-purpose aquatic centre being built in Red Deer before the 2019 Canada Winter Games may not be dead in the water despite getting zero funding in the city’s new capital budget.

The wiggle room has everything to do with the City of Red Deer’s good financial position, and whether council is willing to see the city take on more debt during a period of low interest rates.

Councillor Paul Harris said Tuesday that council has some serious talking to do at a special workshop planned after the operating budget is passed in January. The capital budget was approved earlier this week.

Council only received the completed community amenities report this week. It will be the focus of the workshop. As it stands now, the aquatic centre doesn’t show up in the capital plan for full funding until 2021. The 10-year capital plan is not written in stone — it is a guide.

“We just now have all the material to make those decisions about what should go in the plan and how it should happen,” Harris said.

The amenities report, which involved broad public consultation and review, indicates that top five wanted projects are, first to fifth: more trails, a multi-purpose aquatic centre, Bower Ponds Pavilion expansion, a performing arts/concert hall and Michener Aquatic Centre building renovations.Harris said he would like to see the proposed multi-purpose aquatic centre, which would include a 50-metre pool, in time for the Canada Winter Games. One of the events in the games is synchronized swimming. As it stands now, that will take place in Calgary.

“We’re at 2015 now. You’re going to need at least a year for design … and earliest we could begin construction is 2016, so you’ll be building into 2017, 2018. So it’s tight already just to make the games,” Harris said.

But it’s not just about the games.

Councillor Buck Buchanan said it’s also about having the facility for the community after the games have come and gone.

“We’ve got lots of water with the pools that we do have, it’s just unfortunately right in the present time and space we just don’t have the right kind of water.

“To me, let’s just do it.”

Buchanan is “very comfortable” with the city’s debt, which he says is only about 40 per cent of the allowable debt limit, and interest rates are low. “We’ve got lots of room to go. Why wouldn’t we?

“I’m not saying let’s go nuts or anything, but it’s for the goodness of the community.”

Harris, who chairs the city’s audit committee, said the Ralph Klein era convinced everybody in Alberta that debt was a bad thing. “It’s ingrained in us.

“Our city is in amazing financial shape. Amazing.

“Right now the borrowing rates are as low as they have ever been. Are we as a council going to miss the opportunity to borrow at rates that are one, two, three per cent and build the amenities that we need?

“Are we going to wait until they go up to 10 or 12 per cent like we were doing 10 years ago? This is the opportunity that we’re missing. You’re nearly borrowing the money at zero,” said Harris.

The debt message always overpowers every other message, Harris said, adding that the city has more in reserves than it has in debt.

In the city’s annual report for the year ending Dec. 31, 2013, chief financial officer Dean Krejci said the city maintained its excellent financial position. City reserves were at $222 million. The city’s total long-term debt was $208 million with 67 per cent related to self-supported activities and 33 per cent related to tax-supported activities.

Harris also noted that city council has kept the tax rate low for several years now and reserves have been building.

There’s a one per cent increase that will go directly into 2015 capital reserves but if it were 1.1 per cent or 1.25 per cent, it would probably build a concert hall and move the pool forward, Harris said.

One per cent represents about a $30 increase per year in an individual’s property taxes.

“It’s not a big shift,” said Harris.

The cost of the multi-purpose aquatic centre in 2014 dollars is estimated at $75 million. The Central Alberta Aquatic Centre group has estimated that delaying the project will cost $2 million per year, so that it could cost $84 million by 2020. As well, the cost would increase by $10 million for every one per cent increase in interest rates.

Jack Cuthbertson, a member of the Central Alberta Aquatic Centre — a society formed about six years ago to push for the aquatics facility — is hopeful council may move the project ahead.

The fact that it came up as second on the amenities wish list “is absolutely huge,” he said.

“I’m sure that council being armed with the (amenities report) will feel a lot more confident about moving it ahead.”

barr@bprda.wpengine.com

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