Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The cost of recreation

Recreation is one of the first services on the chopping block during tough times. Although recreation is the low man on the totem pole, residents get upset and voice their concern when the pool closes for the summer or youth baseball programs are canceled. Introducing or increasing user fees are controversial and at times seen as a “tax”, but may be necessary as budgets and LGA increasingly shrink. Three Rivers Park District (TRPD), a Minnesota park district is currently dealing with such issues.

TRPD[1] is a special use park district that operates numerous parks in the western suburbs on the Twin Cities and required vehicles to pay to enter the parks, otherwise known as user fees, for many years. In January 2005 parking fees were abolished to break down the barrier between of those who could and could not afford the $5 daily fee or $30 parking pass for the year and the increase the annual attendance[2] and improve the equity. The removal of the parking fee has resulted in an increase in attendance throughout the district. While parking fees for personal vehicles are no more, the park district sill charges for school buses and vans and has increased fees for special programs and some special events.

The current economic situation and removal of parking fees has left TRPD in need of additional funds, and the commission has voted to not raise the levy. Instead they will freeze salaries and rely more heavily on user fees and charges[3]. TRPD, the only special park district with its own taxing authority in Minnesota, is nearing the cap of its taxing authority. Hennepin County property taxes are the primary base for the taxing authority.

This issue of user fees is not special to Minnesota. The US Forest Service conducted a survey on user fees, and results indicated that the public is in support of user fees for certain services, for example campgrounds but do not favor for other services. The survey called out socio-economic and ethnic factors that would make fees less equitable and fair[4]. Another study, on public option on user fees had similar conclusions.[5] TRPD is faced with the fair and equitable dilemma just as previous studies have pointed out.[6]

In the end will user fees and charges be used to cover deficits or will public push back require local and state governments to find alternative means of generating operation funds to keep the precious recreation services open and cost effective for the public. It looks as though TRPD will face these challenging questions in the coming fiscal year, start laying employees off or increase user fees. So, is it better to lay off employees to keep the parks free and open, or should park guests’ be required to pay their fair share on top of the taxes many are already paying?

[1] http://www.threeriversparks.org

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