Vancouver rec center fees being tweaked

City residents will pay less than those outside city limits

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Starting Jan. 1, people who don't live in the city will pay a few more dollars a month to break a sweat at Vancouver recreation centers or rent one for a party, while city residents either won't see an increase or will save a few bucks.

Letters have been sent to people who have passes to Firstenburg Community Center, Marshall Community Center and the Vancouver Tennis Center, notifying them of the fee changes, said David Perlick, the city's recreation services manager.

As an example, adults currently pay $37 a month to work out at Marshall. In January, a noncity resident will pay $40 a month, while a city resident will pay $35.

Starting May 1, 15 percent higher fees will be charged to noncity residents for swim lessons and other programs, although families with more than one child might consider paying a flat annual fee of $70 to essentially buy resident status, Perlick said.

The changes may be a surprise for people within the city's urban growth area, such as residents of Hazel Dell, Salmon Creek, Felida and Orchards, who think they live in city limits because they have a Vancouver address but really live in unincorporated Clark County.

Perlick said the higher fees are meant to make up for the fact that noncity residents aren't paying property taxes to the city.

He said the decision doesn't relate to the fact that county commissioners decided in September to cut ties with Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation. The county had been contracting for services including parks and trail planning, but it hadn't been contributing money for the three recreation facilities, Perlick said.

Among the three centers, there are about 6,100 pass accounts, which represent both individuals and families. About one-third of pass holders are from outside city limits. As he wrote in an Oct. 22 memo to City Manager Eric Holmes, the parks department has a higher out-of-city use than other agencies the city studied.

"This is due, in large part, to the fact that no other municipal service providers are nearby," Perlick wrote.

Unlike most private health clubs, the city doesn't charge sign-up fees or require a minimum commitment. While some users buy annual passes, others opt for month-to-month.

The city surveyed the 14 largest parks and recreation agencies in Washington and Oregon. Nine of the agencies have non-resident fees, ranging from 10 to 50 percent higher than resident fees. Vancouver's system will model Portland's, Perlick wrote in the memo to Holmes.

"The methodology establishes an equitable differential amount nonresidents should pay consistent with what a typical city resident pays through taxes for recreation services. The estimated tax contribution of a typical Vancouver household is $70 annually," Perlick wrote. "Nonresidents will have the option of paying the $70 and being able to register for any program, or pay an additional 15 percent of the program fee if they choose to register for individual classes."

Daily drop-in fees will not change. Special events, concerts, teen centers and teen late nights will remain free.

Cost recovery

Operating Firstenburg, Marshall and the tennis center costs the city approximately $7.2 million a year, Perlick said. That figure includes staff, utilities and maintenance for the facilities, as well as the cost of putting on classes, activities, sports leagues and biannual recreation catalogues.

User fees, facility rental fees and program registration fees account for 98.5 percent of annual revenues, which total about $5.7 million, Perlick said. Sale of swim diapers, locks and T-shirts plus grants and donations also contribute to that total.

Since revenues cover only 80 percent of costs, the city makes up the difference by taking money out of the general fund.

The idea of different fees for different types of residents isn't new to the city.

The city used to charge higher fees for nonresidents but made fees the same for everyone in 2005, when the city was focused on growth.

Now the city lives in an era of costs not keeping pace with revenues.

In February, a parks consulting group hired to review the joint parks and recreation department told the city council and county commissioners that things had to change. The department lacked a sustainable business model and clear vision, according to the consultants from GreenPlay LLC, and residents' satisfaction with the maintenance of city parks, adult and youth recreation programs and indoor facilities has decreased from 2010 to 2012.

One of GreenPlay's recommendations was for the city to charge higher fees for noncity residents.

"We've gone through budget cuts, and we're trying to be strategic about fees," Perlick said. "We value and welcome folks who live outside city limits; having greater participation is good for everybody because it means we can offer a greater diversity of programs. We do serve the whole community, not just city limits. We just want to recognize that city residents pay taxes."

Noncity residents will remain eligible for camp scholarships, Perlick said.

In the memo to Holmes, he wrote that it's difficult to predict how much money will be generated by the fee changes — and since some fees will increase in January and others in May, he won't have a clear picture of annual revenue growth until 2015.