Meaford's Rotary Club raised an important issue when they attended the mandatory public meeting on Monday night focused on the 2018 municipal budget – the rising cost for community groups to use facilities and services in Meaford Hall.
The issue is a tough one. For several years, ratepayers have pressured council to get a better handle on costs, including for Meaford Hall, which more than a decade after its renovation still does not break even. Council has responded by directing staff to analyze the operation of the facility with a goal toward achieving full cost recovery. Municipal staff have responded by increasing rates, which has in turn made it difficult for some local organizations to continue using the facility.
The Rotary Club brought council's attention to the 125 percent increase they are facing as a result of increased fees included in the 2018 budget documents. For years the Rotary Club has held their weekly meetings in the Terrace Room at Meaford Hall. During their meetings they make use of a podium and microphone, and have water served as well as a catered meal which requires the use of dishes and other kitchen items, which in turn requires hall staff for set up, tear-down, and clean-up.
For the use of the room at Meaford Hall with the services mentioned above, the Rotary has paid $84 each week (they don't hold meetings at the hall during the summer months), but in 2018, for the same room and services they are being asked to pay $189 each week – ouch.
Included in the new $189 price tag is $30 for use of a microphone for their meetings. Rotary Club members found that fee particularly galling given that, as they told council on Monday night, the Rotary Club donated the first microphone for use in the hall.
Obviously such a drastic increase is going to have an impact on any community organization. During discussion around the council table during questions from the president of the Rotary Club it was noted that Meaford's community theatre group no longer holds rehearsals at the hall due to hefty rate increases in previous years. This year the community rate for rental of the opera house is increasing again from $650 for eight hours use last year to $800 this year, a roughly 25 percent increase (the commercial rate for 2018 is double the commercial rate at $1,600 for eight hours use).
The Deputy Mayor told council that his own observation has been that fewer and fewer of Meaford's community groups are making use of Meaford Hall, most likely due to the rising cost.
But what's to be done? By directing staff to find a path to full cost recovery for Meaford Hall, council is doing what ratepayers have asked of them. By raising rates, staff is doing what council has asked of them. So everyone is doing what they are supposed to do, but by doing so, community groups suffer.
It's unfortunate that in our society, in general terms we collectively support government subsidization of things like public transportation or athletics, but subsidizing the arts is often scoffed at. Does anyone think that our local arena breaks even? Not by a long shot, but we accept that our collective dollars can and should subsidize the cost of running an arena; the arts on the other hand is often a much different story.
From my perspective sitting at the media table in the council chamber watching the discussion unfold, I can only really see two potential routes for council. They can stand firm on their direction that the hall move toward full cost recovery even if that means shutting out community groups that lack deep enough pockets to pay the fees, or council can decide that there is value in the arts and community organizations, and they can direct staff to move the hall toward full cost recovery on the backs of commercial renters and not community groups. Not that either direction would be an easy decision for council.
If community groups ultimately find the hall to be too expensive, the hall runs the risk of generating no revenues at all from these organizations; on the other hand, if community rates are revisited there will be an argument that those groups aren't paying their fair share which in turn can negatively impact the hall's bottom line.
Which direction is the appropriate direction? That is up to the ratepayers of Meaford and the councils we elect, but I think it would be worthwhile to have the discussion, perhaps by holding a special meeting of council that includes local stakeholders like theatre groups, quilting clubs, or organizations like the Rotary who rent space to hold their meetings, as well as concerned ratepayers.
I don't think there's an easy answer to this situation, but in my opinion the arts and community groups are worthy of subsidization, just as the arena is worthy, and the public swimming pool is worthy. How much we can afford to subsidize community use of Meaford Hall is really up to the community, but I think it would be sad to see local community groups flee the hall after the community has made such a significant investment in the facility.