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Comment: An Olympic-sized pool of money is needed from all taxpayers

Victoria needs to look for innovative ways to pay for a new Crystal Pool and not just have the city’s taxpayers shoulder the burden.
An artist’s rendering of what a new Crystal Pool could look like. HCMA Architecture + Design

A commentary by the vice-chair of Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria, a non-partisan citizens advocacy group for municipal taxpayers.

Exhaustion has set in after 20 years of talk and Victoria is likely going to dive off a five-metre platform and plunge into the deep end of an Olympic-sized pool.

To replace the 53-year-old Crystal Pool will entail taxpayers borrowing $169 million to fund a much larger recreation and aquatic centre costing as much as $216 million — double the outlay for the infamous Blue Bridge.

So before a referendum early in the new year and in the wake of an unanimous council decision, there needs to be more talk. When you consider the track record of mega infrastructure projects here and elsewhere to be on time and budget, it’s no wonder.

Why so outrageously expensive? The facilities will be much larger. The feasibility study of 2017 proposed adding 33% more to the current building.

But at 8,600 square metres, the 2024 proposal adds 52% more to the existing space of 5,667 square metres. Various features and services were also added to appease the neighbourhood.

Then there’s skyrocketing costs for construction, energy regulation and building code changes such as new seismic standards, and delays brought on by COVID.

If there’s underground parking — not part of previous proposals – that rings in at $15 million.

Do we really need a new pool? It’s a vital, much-needed service for residents in the region and pays back in health and social benefits. For many, the arguments are demanding we get it done. How it’s done though is worthy of discussion.

Feasibility studies — there have been a few over the years — report several major risks in operating the existing pool.

Skylights, pool waterproofing and drainage are reported to be at “catastrophic risk.” There are high operating costs and the old pool is dreadful on emissions. It’s not accessible for many residents. These issues won’t improve before the new pool is completed in five or six years.

What about teaming up with the YM-YWCA? The downtown YM-YWCA property sold and a developer is seeking zoning approval for a housing project across from Christ Church Cathedral.

Any build-out is liable to take up to four years. Meanwhile, the Y is trying to find a new downtown location. It sounds like a match made in taxpayer heaven, and perhaps a partnership could still be found.

So what sidetracked the 2016 proposal? Staff recommended three options then, including renovating the existing facility at a cost of $41 million, renovating and expanding it for $57 million, or building a new facility estimated to cost $69.4 million, an option councillors approved.

There was opposition from the North Park Community Association, issues with several proposed locations and in adding affordable housing.

The cost raised eyebrows and was thought excessive. Many taxpayers thought the new Victoria Fire Department headquarters and hall was the top priority. Then COVID came along and pushed the pool project back even further.

Can council deliver another big project on time and budget? After the controversial replacement of the Johnson Street Bridge, also known as the Blue Bridge, taxpayers are still wary.

Council struggled mightily on the project, finally delivering it for about $105 million, months over deadline and tens of millions over budget. Unfortunately, the NDP government closed the Office of the Auditor General for Local Government during an audit that was never completed or released to the public.

On the other hand, perhaps learning from the Blue Bridge bungling, the next council delivered a new Fire Hall No. 1 pretty much on time and budget.

By the way, there are calls for the province to bring back the Auditor General for Local Government. It’s no wonder after Metro Vancouver’s North Shore wastewater treatment plant project cost ballooned from $700 million to an estimated $3.86 billion.

What’s the impact on Victoria taxpayers? Two reserve funds will decrease the projected cost by as much as $47 million, although they will need to be backfilled.

Small tax increases will be phased in over five years, but once completed the average resident taxpayer is looking at a tax hike of $256 per year for 20 years. The typical business will be facing an increase estimated at $660 per year.

This tax bill increase combined with the burden associated with the Capital Regional District’s proposed expansion and upgrade of water supply services could cause huge financial impact on homeowners and businesses. There needs to be more tax dollars for solid waste treatment.

Are there multi-million dollar questions? Victoria taxpayers are wondering how this new facility fits into an overall regional recreation strategy. What percentage of city residents use the pool? Will the fee structure be adjusted for non-residents to help pay for the facility?

At $200 million plus, is this the utilitarian version or a luxurious, legacy facility? What are the prospects for sponsorships, provincial and federal grants to moderate the cost?

Why not build a shared regional facility? We already share recreation, cultural and sports venues and services in each other’s municipalities. Saanich Commonwealth Place, built as part of the 1994 Commonwealth Games, and Panorama Recreation operated by the CRD, immediately come to mind.

This is another opportunity for residents of our broader community to once again contribute to a shared service.

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