Aquarena grant divides committee

Daniel
Daniel MacEachern
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City could provide $100,000 to university facility

The annual grant from St. John’s to the Aquarena has survived a close vote at the committee level to be up for approval at Tuesday night’s city council meeting.

The Aquarena in St. John’s.

On March 11, the city’s finance and administration committee recommended approval of the $100,000 grant to the Aquarena, but four councillors — Bernard Davis, Jonathan Galgay, Tom Hann and

Art Puddister — voted against it. The committee’s recommendations come before council tonight.

Hann told The Telegram Mon­day he voted against the grant because when Memorial University took over Aquarena operations in 1994, the agreement was that the city would provide a grant for three years.

That grant has been halved in the ensuing two decades — initially $200,000, the grant was cut to $150,000 and then to $100,000 — but Hann said it’s time to cut the purse strings.

“(The city) turned it over to the university for a minimal amount, with a guarantee (of a grant) for three years only,” said Hann, adding that the grant has continued every year since. “It’s been around the council table for some time, whether or not we should be providing a $100,000 grant to the university, which has a budget probably as large as the city, or larger. It’s always up for discussion every year.”

Hann says the grant needs to be re-examined.

“You have the provincial government, who doesn’t pay taxes, doesn’t pay permit fees. You have the university, who doesn’t pay taxes, or doesn’t pay permit fees. They can build anything they want and don’t have to tell the city,” he said. “They bought the Battery (Hotel) and a couple of other buildings around town and we’ve lost $350,000 in tax revenue from these buildings, especially the Battery. The question around the table was, why are we continuing to provide the university with a $100,000 grant when we’ve lost all this revenue?”

Coun. Danny Breen — chairman of the finance committee and one of the remaining five councillors who voted in favour of the grant — said the Aquarena benefits too many residents and the city has too strong a relationship with Memorial University to suddenly cut the grant without discussing it with the university.

“It’s not that I’m in favour of the grant, but we have some other issues that we need to work with the university on,” he said. “For example, traffic congestion on the parkway is an issue that we’re doing a study with Eastern Health and the university. While we have those issues we’re working on, I don’t think cutting the grant right now is the best way to move forward. I think we need to discuss that in the broader sense of a number of different issues that we have.”

Breen also cited the city’s hope to host the 2021 Canada Summer Games, which will be held in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“The university plays a key role in that, and certainly facility-wise, it does,” he said, “because you’d need to look at whether you’d need to build a new aquatic centre, or if you can, do modifications to the Aquarena to make it work for the Canada Games.”

Craig Neil, general manager of The Works, which includes the Aquarena, said the city’s grant is a significant portion of the fitness facility’s annual $6-million budget.

“The majority of what happens in the Aquarena is for the citizens of St. John’s,” said Neil, who added that losing the grant would have a significant effect on its finances, and could result in higher fees. “Any time you lose significant revenue of that nature, you would have to try to balance your budget by raising revenues, and the only way to raise revenues is raise revenues through the users, which we’re not trying to do.”

City council will vote on the finance committee’s recommendation tonight.

dmaceachern@thetelegram.com, Twitter: @TelegramDaniel

Organizations: Canada Games, The Works

Geographic location: Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Margaret
    March 18, 2014 - 13:39

    As seniors we are struggling to pay the amount of property tax we pay. I do not agree with any grants from City Council. I don't agree as well with churches and charitable organizations being exempt from property tax. If organizations can pay salaries, employee benefits, property and contense insurance,upkeep, snow-clearing, and ground maintenance, why are we giiving grants or excusing their property tax. If I want to support the Aquaarena or churches or any other organization of business, I can do it with admission fees or personal donations.

  • Steve
    March 18, 2014 - 10:03

    I'm not sure that I agree with the point made regarding the grant being a significant portion of the total operating budget. Last time I checked, 1.6% of a budget is not a significant portion.

  • Marty
    March 18, 2014 - 08:47

    Seems like something is missing from this story. If the agreement between City Council and Memorial was continued support for 3 years only why has it continued for so long? With regards to Mr. Neil's comments, if they can't live within their budget on their own facility then the option should be user fee increase. I doubt the majority of citizens use this facility, why should their taxes pay for it? There are many more issues requiring support that the majority, if not all citizens depend on.

    • Brad
      March 18, 2014 - 12:59

      St. John's needs recreation facilities like this especially if our city continues to grow. And your logic is flawed, I have never taken out EI at all, yet I continue to pay EI Insurance premiums. Should I be entitled for a refund?

  • Marty
    March 18, 2014 - 08:45

    Seems like something is missing from this story. If the agreement between City Council and Memorial was continued support for 3 years only why has it continued for so long? With regards to Mr. Neil's comments, if they can't live within their budget on their own facility then the option should be user fee increase. I doubt the majority of citizens use this facility, why should their taxes pay for it? There are many more issues requiring support that the majority, if not all citizens depend on.