Residents say city's recreation fees are too high

Thursday, April 17, 2008 | 10:28 p.m. CDT; updated 2:33 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Some community members expressed frustration with fees at a Columbia Parks and Recreation public meeting on Thursday night. They felt that the fees bar some low-income families from participating in recreation activities.

The Columbia Parks and Recreation Department asked residents to express their views at the meeting as part of its analysis on current fees and staffing organization. The department is evaluating fees based on what other comparable communities charge, as well as looking at how staffing works to see whether reorganization might increase efficiency.

“If we weren’t interested we wouldn’t ask,” said Gary Ristow, manager of recreation services.

Becky Markt, who spoke for Phil Steinhaus on behalf of Columbia Housing Authority, said that for many families with low incomes, the recreational fees were simply too high to pay.

“There is not much left in (a low-income) family budget for recreational opportunities that many other families take for granted,” Markt said, reading from a letter written by Steinhaus.

She suggested offering reduced rates for organized youth sports as well as expansion of the youth scholarship fund as a way to make recreational activities more accessible to low-income children.

Ashley Turner, shelter director for Rainbow House, said the organization cannot afford to take children to the Activity and Recreation Center (ARC) for swimming and other activities.

“Five dollars (per person to enter) is not something that’s reasonable or that we can actually do,” Turner said.

The current fees are based on goals to recover a percentage of the cost of operation for each program. For example, Parks and Recreation sets fees for youth sports that will ideally pay for 50 percent of the cost of that program. However, according to Mike Hood, parks and recreation director, these recovery goals were established as far back as the 1980’s.

“We thought it was time to review them,” Hood said.

The meeting also included a presentation by the consultant chosen to evaluate Columbia Parks and Recreation’s current fees, Barbara Heller. Heller expressed approval that Parks and Recreation had chosen to invite public comment.

“Usually they set fees and then that’s when you hear from the public,” she said.

Ristow said that public account would be considered.

“We have to balance that with fiscal responsibility,” he added.

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