Ice sport groups slag mayor’s budget proposal

By David Hutton

Local parents, coaches, and organizers involved in ice sports are outraged over the city’s proposed increase in arena rental fees.

“This would put a lot of kids out of the game,” says Richard Sennott, executive director of the Ottawa District Hockey Association, the sport’s regional governing body that represents 29,000 amateur players. “They’re lucky this isn’t an election year.”

The City of Ottawa is considering charging $210 per hour at city-owned facilities in order to increase revenue and potentially avoid a tax increase in next year’s municipal budget. Currently, ice time at city rinks, including Tom Brown and McNabb arenas in Centretown, costs $116.75 an hour for youth teams, and $165.75 an hour for adults.

The proposed fee changes would increase the cost for children by 80 per cent, and 27 per cent for adults. The increase would affect hockey, ringette, speed skating, and figure skating.

The fee increase is being proposed by the city manager as part of a plan to reach Mayor Larry O’Brien’s tax freeze promise. The city has backed off the massive service cuts and closures that were initially suggested, as councillors agreed it was unacceptable to cut front-line services such as libraries, arenas and transit to achieve a tax freeze. Similar cuts were proposed by city staff but largely rejected by council in 2004.

“Hockey is already an expensive sport,” Sennott says. “Parents are already stretched with fundraising. You’re going to make parents choose which kids to put into hockey. The fees next year would be astronomical.”

Ringette will be particularly damaged because young women don’t have many options in terms of physical activity, says Norm Boxall, vice-president of the City of Ottawa Ringette Association.

“It’s important that these young girls are able to play sport and be physically active,” he says. “With an increase like this it would deter a lot of kids from playing. It would just be too expensive.”

Many local tournaments would also be in danger, Boxall says, because Ottawa would no longer be able to draw in teams from outside the city as fees would be out of their price range.

Boxall is among those who believe the city will back down on the drastic options to cut costs in next year’s budget. He says he believes they’re just “blowing smoke” to make eventual tax increases seem like the lesser of two evils.

“It’s just not right,” he says. “These sports are what our communities are made of.”

Dave Taylor, who coaches both his son’s hockey teams, is already booking practice time in the early morning on weekends to cut back on rink rental costs. He says both his teams already depend on too much fundraising from parents.

“Many families of players I coach are already stretched thin,” Taylor says. “They get about 55 appearances on the ice a year. Double the cost of each of those and there’s going to have to be a lot more fundraising.”

The vast majority of money collected from kids playing hockey goes towards rink fees, says Reg Charette, past president of the Ottawa Centre Minor Hockey Association. The price of basic house league registration would jump from $450 to $700 if the proposal went through, he says. Factoring in equipment costs, many parents of lower income kids would be pushed out of the market.

“Everyone is talking about childhood obesity and diabetes and what are we doing?” he says. “We’re going to shut down our recreation facilities.”

Charette suggests that the city look into better using arenas during the day, where there is currently very little use.

“I just don’t understand the thinking,” he says.

Councillors are scheduled to consider and approve the budget between Dec. 10 and 14.

“I hope they take a strong look at this,” Sennott says. “Then they might figure out how many kids they’re going to put out on the streets.”