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Permits history

31-May-2010 [104]

• How the present permit fee structure was established

Part of Permits

Permits: a little history

John Sewell says that while he was Mayor, the city negotiated the first shared-use agreements with schools. That meant there were suddenly many more recreation centres. It must mean there were many new staff and also much new building. I asked Mr.Sewell what they had in mind when they added so many centres and he said they just thought people should have more places to do recreation, since they seemed to want that. I asked whether he and his colleagues were concerned about training kids for the Olympics, and he said, not in the slightest. They just wanted more gyms and pools and activity rooms available for people. I asked him if maybe they overbuilt and he said, no. But he said that Toronto had by then already had a philosophy of free access to parks and recreation for everyone for a hundred years. There was no talk of charging anyone.

So until the year after amalgamation, almost all activities in parks and rec centres of the former City of Toronto (renamed “South District”) were free. Most centres had advisory councils to allocate permits and give opinions about the running of the centres. But most of those councils were precarious in their membership, so that when the talk of fees for programs began, although there was plenty of disapproval, resistance was not strong. A few councils said program fees were a terrible form of “double-dipping,” since the centres were already tax-funded. But the management just reiterated that there was not enough money to run all their facilities. They called charging fees “cost recovery,” as though the city had lost something and was now finally starting to find it again.

Then the great effort began, sourcing income opportunities within the cornucopia of parks and community centres that make up the management portfolio. To that end, new centralized computer software called CLASS was purchased, to index all small, medium and large rooms inside community centres, all gyms (and their dimensions), all playing fields, all small additional structures – rink change houses, picnic tables – that might have a space that could be permitted for money. Ideally, in this system nothing is left out, everything must be visible.

It then becomes the responsibility of recreation workers in every part of the city to type into the computer each minute of time that these spaces are used for city recreation programs. Whenever a room is not booked, it becomes centrally available for rent by a permit group. For fairness of administration, there is a priority sequence for permit approval. Age is the most important consideration, with children and youth (up to age 24) getting the lion’s share of the time. Residents rank much higher than non-residents. As long as the whole group comes within the new amalgamated city of two and a half million and not beyond, they can be slotted in anywhere from Rexdale to Scarborough, assuming they don’t mind a little driving. Not-for-profit groups rank far above those wishing to profit from the space, but they have to be bona fide:

not-for-profit organizations with a volunteer executive elected at an Annual General Meeting; a constitution, by-laws and/or letters patent; provide financial statements (audited if required)

All the other groups including community groups that don’t “meet the criteria to be defined as community groups” go to the end of the line for permits. They are lumped with “commercial groups and individuals.” This bottom group is entitled to 0 – 10% of permits in any neighbourhood parks and recreation facility (including a park).

A mathematical formula accompanies the permit process, to be scrupulously fair to applicants, including most especially those who are applying for a permit for the first time:

A x B x (C divided by D), where A is “Total Hours of available time after Department Programs and Partnership Events are deducted,” B is the “Distribution percentage for Categories,” C is “Resident membership for eligible organization requesting facility space for Category,” and D is “Total resident membership for all eligible organizations requesting facility space for category.”

Now, if this formula were applied as stated, in a time of high demand, permit times could be shortened to 10 minutes apiece. But then a number of groups would turn away and try their luck elsewhere. So perhaps frustration would provide the natural balancing mechanism, allowing, let’s say, a league of little-kid t-ball players, young enough to lose interest after 20 minutes anyway, to play, eight groups of them, using the formula permit price x 8. This is assuming that their parents took the time to elect an executive, vote on a constitution and by-laws, and prepare financial statements for presentation at their Annual General Meeting. Since many parents of young t-ball players may not have that kind of time, another natural mechanism would reliably come into play, tending to shorten the life of the permit group and therefore allowing another similar group to take its place a year or two later. No one group would therefore be able to hog the permit times: sooner or later, they would all be defeated by the formula.