Opinion: City park board, community centre associations at odds over plans to end volunteer-run operations
As presented by the park board last Monday, their latest scheme promises Vancouver residents free and easy access to fitness and recreation facilities at every community centre in Vancouver. A good sound bite? Yes. But what they don’t tell you is that it also threatens to shut down or raise the prices for many of the local community centre programs that neighbourhood residents treasure. Goodbye local programs. Hello higher prices.
The so-called OneCard is, of course, just the pointy end of the park board’s ill-advised and unpopular plan — confirmed at an all-night meeting in February — to eliminate local, non-profit volunteer control of our 23 neighbourhood community centres throughout Vancouver. To the folks at the head office, this may all look good on paper, but it’s a disaster in the making for our tens of thousands of community centre members.
Vancouver’s community centre system is unique and incredibly popular because many of the centres were built, and nearly all are run today by non-profit societies which tailor services to meet local neighbourhood needs. Surveys routinely show that more than 80 per cent of community centre users are satisfied with the facilities and services.
But for this unique and successful system to work, each centre needs to charge the fees that will support their own mix of facilities and programs. In many cases, this allows the centres to offer valuable additional programs like preschool and seniors lunches at below cost through cross-subsidies from program fees, membership dues, rentals and grants.
Two other significant examples of these locally focused, subsidized programs are Hastings’ youth program and family drop-in program. Like the seniors lunches at Kerrisdale, neither of these programs will be possible without association support.
Under the park board’s new plan, the sources for valuable programs such as these appear to be threatened. The park board promises to compensate the community centre associations for lost membership revenue. But the math simply doesn’t add up, and it appears that the associations will be left with a significant shortfall, potentially leaving their members without the programs and services on which they depend. They ask us to trust them when past conduct suggests otherwise.
The six centres that make up My Vancouver Community Centres as well as park board commissioners are receiving hundreds of letters and phone calls from citizens who express concerns with the park board plans. They are beginning to realize that central control of revenues and programs will replace the valued services developed by local community centre associations with a limited range of cookie-cutter core services. We are listening to the members of our communities who are telling us not to participate in negotiations that lack transparency and meaningful consultation.
These same members are troubled by numerous unanswered questions around the park board plans:
Why are negotiations continuing with a selection of community centres that represent only 30 per cent of users in the city?
Why did the lead negotiator for this minority group not disclose that she had an apparent conflict of interest as a paid employee of the city?
Why has the park board failed to provide a single document requested by the My Vancouver Community Centres in duly filed Freedom of Information requests?
What is the point of discussing a new agreement with the park board while repeated violations of the current agreement and numerous cutbacks in service by the park board have not yet been resolved? How do you create trust like this?
The park board has already effectively conceded that it abused its powers in February when it extended a public meeting on this subject to 3 a.m. — a time of night when most members of the public who had come to the meeting were exhausted and unable to participate. By voting to proceed with centralization negotiations at that time, the majority on the park board not only flew in the face of public opinion at the meeting, they also flew in the face of public opinion as measured in an independent survey by the Mustel Group. This survey demonstrated that 75 per cent of Vancouver residents who are aware of the issue disagree with the park board’s centralization plan.
Fortunately, the park board’s promise to introduce the OneCard in July is only a sound bite for now. They legally require the agreement and co-operation of every community centre society to make this happen, and they are not even negotiating with 11 community centres, which represent approximately 70 per cent of community centre users.
Our reluctance to participate in tainted negotiations should not be taken to mean we reject some of the excellent goals of equal access to fitness and recreation for all our citizens, regardless of their financial circumstances. In fact, we have already suggested a number of ways that this can be achieved without dismantling local control of programs and revenues. We are more than willing to move forward on these questions, but our members want no part of centralization and loss of neighbourhood control.
With the park board losing public confidence by the day, it is time for our mayor and council to intervene and help the parties find a way to renew our historic roles as the stewards of Vancouver’s community centres for the benefit of the communities they serve.