Will Crystal Pool become an election issue? Candidates say “Yes.”
LIKE THE REST OF US, Jeremy Loveday seemed confused. “Has council — did we decide to — not?” asked the City of Victoria councillor, at a July 19 update on the Crystal Pool replacement project. “I know we were going to do a referendum, and then we didn’t need a referendum. Did we make a council motion not to do a referendum?”
The confusion was understandable. In June a letter had surfaced, from provincial Minister of Municipal Affairs Selina Robinson to Mayor Lisa Helps, suggesting the City hold a referendum if it wanted the best chance at securing federal-provincial infrastructure money for a new pool. “[L]arge-scale projects that demonstrate both public and financial support through a referendum (or some sort of public approval process) are identified as lower risk under the program assessment,” wrote Robinson. Then on June 20 the Times Colonist editorialized that the City should put the pool project to a vote. “Even if a referendum has no effect on government contributions, City officials would know whether they really do have backing from taxpayers,” the TC concluded.
That led some to think the City might add another question to the October 20 civic election. (There’s already one seeking approval for a citizens’ assembly to discuss amalgamation with Saanich.) But when councillors met on July 19, they seemed determined to keep the pool off the ballot.
The pool's new, larger design will be at least $8.8-million more expensive to build than originally budgeted
Lawyers said the City would need voter approval to build affordable housing atop the new pool’s parking lot, because housing would be an unusual use for a dedicated park. Councillors quickly abandoned the housing idea, and asked staff to design a smaller lot with “no net loss” of green space. As for getting actual voter approval for the new pool — to borrow money, for example, as required under provincial law — there was no talk of that at all, until Loveday asked about a referendum.
“Council’s direction was to explore the grant opportunities first, and then report back on options for how any remaining funding gap could be filled,” replied Tom Soulliere, the City’s parks director. The funding strategy would be discussed at the next update — in November, after the election. And with that, the councillors moved on to other worries, like bicycle parking at the new pool, and whether it would have a coffee shop.
Nobody mentioned Minister Robinson’s letter. Wouldn’t failing to hold a referendum jeopardize the grants needed to build the pool in the first place?
That was a “misunderstanding,” Soulliere told me later. The Province was only concerned that the City had enough money to cover any gap between a grant and the final project cost. He was right: even though Robinson’s letter recommended showing both public and financial support, her office told me that “if an applicant does not need to borrow externally to cover their share of costs, then elector approval is not required.”
The City is hoping to get money from the next phase of the federal government’s 12-year, $180-billion Investing In Canada Plan. Under the plan, the feds will pay 40 percent of approved projects, and the provinces at least 33 percent. The pool is currently budgeted at $69.4M — although that’s sure to increase, as you’ll see below — so the City would have to come up with $18.7M, or 27 percent. Since the City has already allocated $10M from its financial reserves for the project, it would only need another $8.7M, which it can easily find in reserves. No borrowing, no referendum.
But what if the City doesn’t get that grant?
THE CITY NEEDS AT LEAST $45M from the federal-provincial plan, and getting all that might be a long shot. Such a grant would be the largest in the City’s history, bigger than the $37.5M the feds allocated, from two separate funds, to the Johnson Street Bridge. To date, the largest federal grant ever given for a rec centre is $18.8M, for Ryerson University’s facility in the former Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto. The City of Victoria will be asking for 16 percent of the approximately $276M the federal and B.C. governments will be jointly allocating to community and recreation projects, even though the City has just 1.8 percent of the province’s population.
If the City doesn’t get all that money, the next council will face some hard choices. So I asked the incumbents and declared candidates three questions:
1) If the City does not get ANY of the $45M it needs to build a new pool, what should it do?
2) If the City only gets a FRACTION of the $45M, what should it do?
3) If the City has to borrow money, how should it get voter approval—by referendum, or the Alternative Approval Process (AAP), whereby the borrowing is deemed “approved” unless 10 percent of voters sign petitions against it?
Mayor Lisa Helps admitted that if the City doesn’t get any of the money, it can’t simply drain its financial reserves to build the pool. “If we get no money we would need to go to referendum or AAP,” she wrote. But she’s confident the City will get a substantial grant. “There is more infrastructure money than has been historically available for some time,” she noted, and said the City can make up any balance from reserves or “internal borrowing” against them. If the City had to borrow externally, she’d prefer to get voter approval via AAP, although she’s “open to hearing other opinions.” (The respondents’ complete answers are attached HERE.)
Challengers for the mayoralty hold different views. Gary Beyer said that if the City doesn’t get any money or only a portion, it should repair the existing pool: “The project should never have gone as far as it has. Refurbishing is less expensive, and fits with core values of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.” (Beyer has recently announced that he is dropping out of the mayoralty race.) Sean Leitenberg also said the City should repair the pool if the shortfall is too great: “Let’s take care of our facility and see what the Y comes up with in the next few years.” And Stephen Hammond, speaking for the newcouncil.ca slate, called for a halt to the project until a third-party audit is conducted on the Johnson Street Bridge: “We cannot in good conscience allow [the pool] to proceed until a comprehensive review has brought to light all the facts that would inform all future decisions with regard to project management, procurement, organization, and all aspects of undertaking large-scale infrastructure projects in the City of Victoria.”
The three incumbent councillors who responded also believe the City should take a different course if it doesn’t get a substantial grant. Ben Isitt said the City should repair the existing pool. Chris Coleman and Geoff Young favoured pursuing a partnership with the YMCA-YWCA, which hopes to build a new facility downtown with a smaller, 25-metre pool, although that could risk the union jobs of current Crystal employees. All three favoured using a referendum if the City had to borrow externally. (Coleman later announced that he is not running for re-election.)
Among the contenders for council seats, Darlene Archibald said that if the City gets only a fraction of the grant it needs, it should reduce the scope of the project but continue pursuing a new facility, to provide greater accessibility for all users: “I don’t think it is a good idea to wait any longer to replace the pool.” Laurel Collins, Sharmarke Dubow and Sarah Potts, running together under the banner of Together Victoria, said they want a new pool, too; if the City doesn’t get a full grant, they would “proceed with the project as designed only once there is a solid plan to fill the funding shortfall.” Marg Gardiner said the public has lost confidence in the City because of the bridge project, its “almost casual” discussion of putting housing in a park, and its failure to survey taxpayers about how much they’re willing to pay for the pool. She said she’d need assurances of funding before continuing the project as is; otherwise, she’d reduce the scope of the project, or partner with the Y if there was no loss of City jobs. Grace Lore favoured collaborating with the Y, to build a flexible facility with space for needed services like childcare. Jordan Reichert favoured reducing the scope and cost of the project if the City doesn’t receive a grant. If it only receives a partial grant, his decisions would depend — as many respondents said — on how big a funding gap the City has to fill.
IN SHORT, the fate of Crystal Pool hangs not just on a federal-provincial decision, but also on who sits on the next council.
And candidates aren’t the only ones questioning the project. The Victoria Friends of Central Park have posted signs around the neighbourhood, calling for a complete plan for the park, and preservation of all its existing amenities, before pushing ahead with a new pool. Crystal Pool For All, the group that introduced the idea of housing atop the pool’s parking lot, has argued on Lisa Helps’ campaign website that the new pool suffers from “significant omissions and missed opportunities” by failing to include other amenities needed in the area, such as child-care facilities and a gymnasium.
Budget watchdogs also fear that the cost is bound to increase. On July 19, City staff warned that the $69.4M budget presumed that construction would start by next February — and the Province has said it won’t make grant decisions until the spring of 2019 at the earliest. If construction doesn’t start until next October, staff said, the “likely incremental cost” of the project will be $3M higher.
The budget is also based on a 2016 estimate that a new 50-metre pool’s construction cost would be $35.1M of the overall project cost. (See Option 3 in the 2016 estimate HERE.) In June, however, the City unveiled a more detailed design, larger by 500 square metres, with a new leisure pool, a second hot pool, and a “lazy river,” all inside a curved, glass-walled “natatorium” bulging into the park. The City hired two firms, Advicas and Ross Templeton, to estimate the cost of this new design, but didn’t present their reports to councillors on July 19. Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria obtained the reports, and it turns out Advicas said the new design would cost $43.9M to build, and Ross Templeton said it would cost $46.2M — $8.8M to $11.1M more than the $35.1M used in the current budget. (See the Advicas estimate HERE and the Ross Templeton estimate HERE.)
“There is no change to budget, and we’re working with all the consultants to ensure the detailed features and systems fit within the approved construction allowance,” Soulliere wrote to the Grumpy$. “At this stage we can’t confirm whether there will be a change to the shape of the building as this is just one of the components being analyzed from a cost perspective.”
Such shifting costs are bound to raise arguments on the campaign trail. The City won’t be holding a referendum on its next megaproject this October, but in choosing our next council, we will be voting on it anyway. ❖
Victoria writer Ross Crockford loves swimming, but not at any cost.