Months after the announcement of a dual registration and secondary fees for program registration at the Bruce II Sports Centre, the topic remains a contentious one, at least for former Port aux Basques mayor Brian Button.
In January, Port aux Basques adopted a two-tier registration policy for Port aux Basques residents and out of town residents, a motion that has since been rescinded for the swim program registration. It remains in effect for the summer sports given that municipalities are funded individually for those programs. There is also a small secondary fee for non-residents.
Button, who lost to current Mayor John Spencer during last fall’s municipal elections by only four votes, addressed council directly during its July 12 meeting. He began by praising council for their recent work addressing some much-needed road repairs and new signage before cutting to the heart of matter.
“I’m not one to go on and debate things on Facebook,” said Button, who called the online discussion that followed the announcement a circus. “Back in February, when it first came out, I said nothing about it at that time. I didn’t agree with it – what was happening – like a lot of citizens not only outside of town but in town.”
Button noted that the policy changes council put in place for the Bruce II registration system came only four months after they were elected to office, and given the tight mayoral race, did not want his opinion misconstrued as merely sour grapes.
Button said as a taxpayer he finds the change very upsetting.
“I couldn’t care if it costs me another $100 a year to have what we’ve got. That’s not my beef,” said Button. “When it first came out I couldn’t believe that we were even going down this road.”
Button said that in his two decades of experience serving on council or with the recreation committee, there has never before been a need for separate registration or additional fees.
“In the beginning when we built those facilities we did go out and try to get communities to come on board and pay and help put money towards it,” Button said. “We sat down, and we met with them. It didn’t happen.”
Button said that was over 20 years ago and the population continues to decrease, steadily eroding the tax base. He recognized that funding allocations for student programs have also been cut back.
“Never in our history, even when we went through those times, did we have to put in stipulations that was going to have different fees for people who lived outside the community or people that even lived inside our community,” he noted.
Button once worked as manager of the Bruce II. He said that during his tenure there, the only issue he ever noted was people not getting their kids into the same group as their siblings or friends.
“Every kid got in, whether you were from Burnt Islands, Isle aux Morts, whatever, but the onus was on the people,” he said. “First come, first serve.”
Button asked what prompted council to change to the registration policy so soon after taking office.
“I said there must have been a major complaint,” Button recalled speculating. “And then to find out that there wasn’t – it really set me back.
“I couldn’t believe that we were making such a change without even a complaint from a resident in town or a resident outside of town. No one complained in a letter form.”
Button said even as a resident, he was still obliged to register his granddaughter in the second round of summer sports when she visits him for the summer. When he approached a councillor, Button was told that the policy was “Our children first”.
Button believes that the policy should be ‘our taxpayers first’ instead. He said that would have to pay money to a lawyer to declare that he was his granddaughter’s legal guardian during the summer months in order to register her in the first round as a resident.
Before implementing the policy, Button believes council should have held an open discussion with the public and other communities, outlining its research as to why it was necessary. He is concerned that in the future other fees will be imposed for out of town residents, using gym memberships as an example.
He said business owners are worried about the financial impact of suggested boycotts, and that the town may be perceived as a less attractive place to settle as a result.
In conclusion Button noted that the Bruce II applies for government subsidies by labeling itself as a regional facility.
“What’s that going to look like to the government officials that gets our next application?” he asked.
At the conclusion of Button’s presentation, each member of council took the time to address separate points. Although each councillor expressed sympathy and understanding of Button’s position, as a whole council remained resolute.
Spencer kept his remarks the briefest.
“I just have one thing to say. About six months ago, when we started this, and the reality for me is the research I did over those six months, meeting with the communities, is that, without expanding on it, dual registration and secondary payments are a way of life right across Canada,” he said.
Councillor Melvin Keeping said while he has agreed with Button many times in the past, he cannot do so this time.
“As a councillor I am here, voted in by a good majority of the people in this town. Indeed, there were complaints,” clarified Keeping, who pointed out that nobody was left out of the programs again this year regardless of residence. “The taxpayers of Port aux Basques come first.”
Keeping said council has agreed to deal with the need for more sessions and extra staff should the need ever arise to ensure that no child is deprived.
He also pointed out that the Bruce II currently requires an additional $700,000 - $800,000 worth of repairs on top of its usual costs, which includes a new roof, and that it is the taxpayers of Port aux Basques who will be obliged to contribute 40 per cent of that cost.
“There’s no one outside from nowhere that’s gonna come in and say, ‘We’re going to help you pay your 40 per cent share.’”
“When you say that people will boycott? Do you know what? People who boycott are going to hurt their own,” said Councillor Jim Lane, who also spoke about the financial realities of the sports centre. “If 50 kids from Port aux Basques went out and stood up to a line up somewhere else (another community), what do you think is going to happen eventually? They’re going to have the very same thing.”
“Times have changed,” Lane pointed out. “For me that parent that tells me I’m doing wrong – they’re hurting their own child because they won’t take them there, because they don’t like what was said or did. And I don’t think that’s fair.”
Councillor Justin Blackler regularly visits Twillingate.
“I can’t put my kids in Twillingate sports and take slots from somebody who’s a resident,” said Blackler.
He agreed that Port aux Basques does need the help of all surrounding communities to make help keep the Bruce II up and indeed the entire town viable.
“We do need you. We absolutely do,” Blackler said. “We’re not saying that we didn’t need them. We’re just saying that we’re trying to find a way.”
Blackler also seconded Keeping’s comments that council had been made aware of registration issues prior to the policy change.
Struggled with decision
Councillor Chester Coffin pointed out that council struggled with the decision for months, and that it wasn’t made lightly or easily.
“We decided this is the way we were going to go,” said Coffin. “Finally, everybody could see where it was going, and I think it was a unanimous decision.”
Councillor Jerome Battiste says that no one will be left out even with a dual registration.
“That was my understanding that that’s how it’s going to work, so that’s why I was in favour of doing it this way.”
Finances and population
Deputy Mayor Todd Strickland also focused on the financial aspect as a key factor.
“You try to make the best decisions that you can, given the information that you’re given,” said Strickland, who agreed that the registration issues which prompted the change should have been brought properly before council via letter.
“The problem is the population is going down, but people are starting to expect more and more services with the same or less money,” said Strickland. “With the population going down, of course the costs are going up.”
Button was given five minutes to counter council’s remarks, and reiterated his earlier remarks about research, which prompted Spencer to cut him off by banging his gavel.
Spencer repeated that he had, in fact, done the research and that at a recent waste management meeting, an entirely different issue, communities were struggling with a similar financial issue.
“I listened to people desperately plead as to what they can do because people aren’t paying their way,” he said. “What can we do to get people to pay their way?”
Spencer offered full access to the research whenever he liked, then granted him more time to speak due to the interruption.
The two men briefly exchanged remarks, rehashing points made earlier, until council finally moved on to other matters.