Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Matt Elliott: What we can learn from the tale of Penny's pool

Penny Oleksiak, shown here at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, trained at a Leslieville pool that almost got the budget axe.
Penny Oleksiak, shown here at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, trained at a Leslieville pool that almost got the budget axe.

A year ago, a rallying community and a personal appeal from Olympic gold medallist Penny Oleksiak were not enough to save the pool at S.H. Armstrong Community Recreation Centre from the budget axe.

Citing low program registration numbers and other swimming facilities in the area, Mayor John Tory, Budget Chief Gary Crawford and 20 other city councillors voted last February to cut funding for programming at the pool.

Without the operating funds, it looked like the Leslieville pool where Oleksiak once trained would close for good. There would be no more Olympic careers kick-started at S.H. Armstrong.

But then the community turned up the heat.

Literally, I mean. They literally turned up the pool’s heat.

It turns out that when people were asked why they weren’t taking a dip at S.H. Armstrong, many cited frigid water temperatures. That was a pretty easy fix.

Others pointed to low awareness of the facility, but the media attention brought by Oleksiak and other community members helped a lot with that. The headlines even brought in an unexpected donation from two development companies — enough to keep hope alive.

To keep the momentum going, a volunteer working group was established to run modest marketing campaigns. They also identified some quick facility improvements and adjusted programming to be more in tune with the needs of the neighbourhood.

It worked swimmingly. According to numbers presented by resident Mark J. Richardson at a budget meeting last month, registration numbers at S.H. Armstrong in the fall of 2017 were more than double that of the same period a year ago.

Pretty good for a facility that politicians and bureaucrats said was unnecessary.

As a result, in a complete reversal from last year, Toronto’s proposed 2018 budget — set to be debated and voted at a meeting that starts Monday — now includes funding for pool programming.

In a lot of ways, this is a good news story. For swimmers — the Oleksiaks and wannabe Oleksiaks of Leslieville — it’s obviously a win.

But even if funding is restored, there should be no shouts of victory from Tory, Crawford and other councillors who voted to cut last year. Instead, let them reflect on how their focus on shaving the city’s operating budget nearly cost a neighbourhood a needed piece of public infrastructure.

And for what? All this collective community effort to save a pool that costs the city about $135,000 a year. It’s a fraction of a fraction of the city’s nearly $11-billion budget. But that tiny figure provides value for hundreds of people.

In a growing and wealthy city, people shouldn’t have to worry that they will lose public infrastructure.

But they do, too often. Versions of this story are playing out across the city.

Budget constraints lead to deteriorating service and substandard facilities, which in turn lead to declining usage. A few rounds in that death spiral and suddenly pools, playgrounds, bus routes and other public services and spaces can wind up on the chopping block in front of a budget committee desperate to hold the line on taxes.

It’s a sad and common pattern, but the year-long S.H. Armstrong saga demonstrates the solution is not to accept the cuts. Instead, try turning up the heat.

This post was originally published at on 2018-02-12T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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