photo by: Journal-World File
A new recommendation regarding entrance fees for city recreation centers and other fee increases would maintain free entrance for children and youth at rec centers and the Prairie Park Nature Center but charge $3 for adults over a certain income level.
The new recommendation was developed by city staff and a three-member task force of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, and represents a change from the staff recommendation to charge entrance fees for all ages, making an exception for youth and adults who qualify for the Parks and Rec scholarship program. The proposal will be presented to the board for consideration as part of its meeting Monday.
As the Journal-World previously reported, the board expressed concern that the scholarship application process and income documentation requirements would discourage some low-income families, and some would just stop using the facilities. Under the new proposal, entrance fees would not be charged to those 18 and under, and rather than the typical application process that requires proof of income and other documentation, adults with low income would just have to check a box stating they made under the income limit to receive a free annual pass. Parks and Rec officials said that the recommendation represents a no-barriers approach and was meant to address equity concerns expressed by the board and community members.
“I think we listened to the community and everybody that called in and provided their feedback,” Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers said, adding that the community and board input had helped shape the new recommendation. “Ensuring everyone has access is a very high priority.”
Lindsay Hart, assistant director of recreation, said that the recommendation, which will be further discussed by the board on Monday, currently calls for using 185% of the federal poverty level, or $25,142, as the income limit for free entrance for an adult. The department is proposing the entrance and other fees to meet new revenue goals for the department, and Hart said that the proposal still fell short of previously discussed department targets to increase revenue.
For adults who make more than the set limit, there will be daily, monthly and annual pass options. The passes would cover entrance to the city’s four rec centers and the Prairie Park Nature Center, with a separate, less expensive, annual pass for those who only want to attend the nature center. There will be no entrance fees charged for spectators, parents picking up their children or for those participating in recurring programming at the rec centers or nature center.
Specifically, the proposal calls for a $3 daily entrance fee for adults for the city’s four recreation centers — Sports Pavilion Lawrence, Holcom Park Recreation Center, the East Lawrence Recreation Center and the Community Building — and the nature center. A monthly pass for the rec centers, which could also be used at the nature center, would be $10. An annual pass for the rec centers would be $100, and an annual pass for only the nature center would be $20. Those daily, monthly and annual fees would be available only to residents of Douglas County, and the recommendation calls for fees for nonresidents to be double those rates. Hart said that the city looked at rates charged by private gyms and other cities when developing the proposal and that everyone who uses the centers will be issued a key fob. She said that includes youth 18 and under, whose birth date will be entered in the system to ensure free entry.
The department estimates that the new entrance fees will generate about $200,000 in new revenue. The city has never charged entrance fees before, and since the proposal would be a new model for the city, Rogers said that revenue would be clearer once the changes went into effect. He said operating on the honor system for the free annual passes was not a common model, and he thought it represented Lawrence well.
“We are a community of trust,” Rogers said. “Will there be people that cheat the system? Maybe. But who will they be cheating? It will be the community.”
The rec center and nature center entrance fees are only a part of the overall proposal. Another $800,000 would come from increases in fees for the department’s more than 1,500 programs and services, which include summer camps, sports leagues, pool entrance fees, swimming lessons, golf, cemetery plots and various facility rentals. Some fees have not been increased since before the COVID-19 pandemic, and most fees will increase from 10% to 30%, though some will increase by more. Mark Hecker, assistant parks and rec director, said those fees had the potential to have more impact for some residents.
“I think the bigger overarching story is all the fees that we touch in the whole system are going to increase, so this is part of a bigger plan to drive revenues up,” Hecker said. “… Other people may be impacted even more in other places.”
Specifically, some of the increases noted in the presentation for the board include a 20% increase in small shelter rentals, 50% increase for large shelter rentals, 40-50% increases for field rentals, 30% for summer camps, a 45% increase for nature center summer camps, 10-20% for youth/adult sports, 30% for cemetery fees and 20% for golf. Fees for aquatics will also increase, with daily admission increasing by 20%, the punch/annual pass increasing by 30%, lane rentals increasing by 30% and swim lessons increasing by 20%. Recreation program fees will increase between 10% and 30%.
The presentation states that the department’s goal is to increase its revenue to $6.45 million for 2023, which is equal to 34% of the department’s projected expenditures of $18.88 million. The 2022 budget called for the department to collect $4.61 million in revenue, which is equal to 26% of the department’s projected expenditures of about $17.5 million. However, the actual revenue the city currently estimates it will collect for 2022 has fallen short of that goal, coming in at about $3.7 million. The parks and recreation funds are not enterprise funds, which means the fees they charge to residents don’t cover the personnel, maintenance and other costs of operating the service. Many of the department’s services are seen as community goods and are subsidized either in full or in part by tax dollars. Rogers noted that in setting fees, the department considers each program’s community benefit, with certain programs, such as swimming lessons, being subsidized at higher rates.
Hart said the task force did want to know if the department could go with higher fees and not create entrance fees for the recreation centers and the nature center. She said staff and task force members did discuss a proposal that would have increased fees even higher, to generate $900,000 in additional revenue instead of $800,000. However she said raising fees too high could result in drops in attendance, and in the end the task force was not comfortable raising fees any higher.
Rogers said that the plan was for the new program fees to go into effect beginning Feb. 1 and for the rec center and nature center entrance fees to go into effect on March 1. He expected the board would vote on whether to recommend the fee proposal as part of its meeting on Monday. The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board will convene at 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Parks and Recreation Department Administrative Offices, 1141 Massachusetts St., which are in South Park.
Following the board’s meeting, Rogers said the proposal would then be included on a future City Commission agenda as part of the city manager’s report. The commission approved a $1.2 million increase in parks and recreation fees for 2023 as part of its annual budget process, but that approval did not include any details about what the fee increases would entail or whether they would include the introduction of entrance fees to recreation centers. The commission does not vote on items on the city manager’s report, and Rogers said because departments set fees, a vote would not be required.