News

Park district eyes user fees

The Vashon Park District, looking to shore up its 2013 budget, is eying a proposal to reinstitute fees for sports and performance groups that use facilities it owns or manages, including fields, gyms and the high school theater.

Should the proposal pass at the agency’s board meeting next Tuesday, those fees could bring in $45,000 this year, funds commissioners say the park district needs in the wake of declining property tax receipts, its main source of revenue.

“The bottom line — what is motivating this — is that we need revenue to support operations,” David Hackett, a commissioner, told the other board members at a board meeting on Dec. 18. “The fee policy could raise, conservatively, $45,000.”

The park district levied such fees years ago, a practice it shelved because of complaints about the inconsistent way those fees were applied. Last year, Hackett spearheaded an effort to create what he called a more equitable fee structure, with the caveat that those fees would go into earmarked accounts and would be used only to maintain or improve the fields, gyms or theater. The commissioners put the measure on hold last April after some youth sports groups said the fees could

place an undue burden on families with children involved in several sports.

Now, Hackett says, the park district has no choice if it’s to maintain its programs and services. What’s more, in a policy shift, those fees would not be directed to accounts that support specific public facilities but would go into the park district’s general fund.

“Our budget depends on it,” Hackett said in an interview last week.

“It’s not my preference. I think we should do whatever we can to get adults and kids to get out and run around, and a user fee isn’t consistent with that,” he added. “But in this situation, it’s necessary.”

Some in the youth sports community voiced guarded support for the fees, in large part because of the park district’s financial plight. Under Hackett’s proposal, youth sports groups would pay on average $15 per player per sport for the right to use the fields or gyms.

“The money’s got to come from some place,” said Pat Call, a father of two boys who have played basketball, soccer, lacrosse and baseball. Call has been active in Vashon Island Junior Basketball, though he stressed he was speaking for himself and not the group.

Services the district offers have increased in the last several years, as property values climbed on Vashon, resulting in increased property tax receipts, Call added. “Now we have a choice — either ratchet down or find a new way to pay. It seems reasonable to me,” he said.

But at the same time, he said, he hoped the new fees don’t become an ongoing and escalating way to support the park district. “I think there’s a limit before you have the programs collapse,” he said.

Colby Atwood, president of the Vashon Island Rowing Club, which oversees the island’s popular youth crew team, voiced similar sentiments.

“They have to get money from someplace. And getting it from the users make sense,” Atwood said. “But I hope it’s a temporary measure.”

Some in the dance and theater community, however, said they were troubled by the new proposal.

Over the last two years, they formed a theater users subcommittee to address the issue of user fees, working closely with Hackett — who chaired the committee — to device a new system. Last spring, the group voluntarily agreed to pay $150 per performance in the high school gym with the understanding that those funds would be used to replace lights, repair curtains or fix other items that routinely get worn out in the busy theater.

Elizabeth Ripley, an active member of Drama Dock and secretary to the theater users subcommittee, said she was surprised to hear the commissioners now want to direct the funds raised from user fees to the park district’s general fund. The first she learned of the policy pending before the board was last week, when she received a call from The Beachcomber.

“I think this will come as a complete surprise to the theater users. They should at least be brought into the discussion,” Ripley said.

During discussions last year, she said, “It was pretty much the only thing the committee members asked: Where is the money going?”

Sharon Schoen, who chairs Dance!Vashon, said she’d “heard rumors” about increased fees. She, too, is concerned.

“It of course is going to impact our program. ... We’ll make less profit, which means we’ll have less money for financial aid,” she said.

Meanwhile, some also questioned the policy’s underlying principle — the park district’s attempt to raise revenue by charging people who use school district facilities. Under an agreement between the two agencies, the park district manages their shared facilities.

But that agreement “didn’t envision the notion that the park district would be in severe financial trouble and didn’t envision the notion of using school district facilities to defray the costs of park district programs,” said Bob Hennessey, who chairs the school board.

Asked if he supported the proposal, Hennessey declined to comment, saying only, “The precedent does give me pause. But if the community is not in support of it, that’s for the community to decide.”

Hackett, however, said he’s heard little opposition. “People want the facilities to be opened,” he said.

As for the theater users’ contention that they’d agreed to a different approach, Hackett said, “All that’s thrown out the window. We’re not doing a theater improvement fund. ... We don’t have the tax revenues.”

 

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