THUNDER BAY — City council has cut the number of outdoor rinks the city maintains by about a third, reining in earlier proposals for deeper cuts.
Most councillors called the move a necessary response to declining user numbers and financial challenges, while sometimes differing on the extent and details of the cuts.
A minority of councillors opposed the cuts, which passed on a 7-4 vote, with some warning they represented a slow erosion of recreation services and would disproportionately hurt low-income residents.
Coun. Kasey Etreni had proposed closing 13 of the city's 39 rinks, calling that a compromise after council originally considered closing 31 locations — nearly 80 per cent of the total — in a bid to cut spending.
Etreni also argued the city could improve ice quality at remaining locations, with parks staff spread less thinly.
Closing 31 rinks would have produced an estimated $365,000 in yearly savings for the city.
Just how much the smaller cuts approved Monday will save has not yet been estimated.
The rinks council eliminated were largely unboarded and unsupervised ponds, which parks manager Cory Halvorsen said would have minimal financial impact.
Etreni called the cuts one example of the hard decisions council must make as it confronts financial challenges including a yawning infrastructure deficit and ballooning emergency services spending, particularly on police.
“Please remember that we have not met our budget goals for 2023 yet, and we’re at the end of September,” she said.
A council-directed cost-cutting process initiated in February has axed numerous services, but so far failed to deliver targeted savings.
Coun. Shelby Ch’ng said she understood the drive to rein in spending, but warned closing rinks would produce little headway, while eroding community services.
“What I [take] issue with is the premise that we underfund [recreation infrastructure], it deteriorates, people don’t use it anymore because it’s underfunded, then we make a cause for closure, and then push it behind a paywall… Now you have to go to the hockey rink and pay for access.”
Mayor Ken Boshcoff appeared to push back on that argument, saying council shouldn’t hesitate to close services with low user rates, calling rink closures a reflection of demographic changes.
“I will support those areas that have shown the numbers warrant their existence,” he said. “If we can’t come to grips with underutilization at a time when we have to watch almost everything we spend… we’re not going to get through the budget, ever.”
The city had already notified residents living near 11 outdoor rinks that the sites were on a watchlist to be closed or downgraded, after failing to meet those thresholds in annual counts. Staff have reported the majority of city rinks are falling short of usership targets.
Etreni also highlighted a survey that indicated many rink users are willing to drive to nearby locations.
Ch’ng also took aim at that argument, saying it would leave low-income residents behind.
“I just don’t get how the kid whose parents put five dollars’ worth of gas at a time in the car are supposed to drive around to the next rink,” she said. “We need to create a city for everyone, not just people who can drive around looking for the next rink.”
After discussing Etreni’s proposed list, council took four off the chopping block.
That included three ponds that were found to meet the city’s usership threshold of one person per hour, on average — if barely — and a boarded rink at Castlegreen.
While that location was falling well short of the threshold of five users per hour in recent monitoring, council heard the Castlegreen Housing Co-operative maintained the location itself, leaving little work for city staff and therefore minimal potential savings.
Following those changes, the nine rinks set to be closed include:
- Woodside Parkette
- Anton Parkette
- Picton Parkette
- John Kusznier Park
- Third & High
- Wilson Park
- Franklin Park
- Confederation Drive
- Holt Parkette
Supervised boarded rinks at Waddington Park, Charry Park, and Oliver Road Park will also be downgraded to unsupervised rinks
Coun. Greg Johnsen unsuccessfully argued to keep the Confederation Drive pond open, saying numerous young families had moved into the neighbourhood in recent years.
Council was swayed by arguments that the pond was among the least-used in the city, and residents had access to other nearby rinks.