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PARD seeks to restructure fees to recover more program costs

Friday, April 5, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Fees for youth programs run by the Parks and Recreation Department continue to come in at a rate far below program costs. This news comes despite comprehensive efforts by PARD staff to analyze and reconfigure fee structures.


“Right now, the entire city gets a 65 percent subsidization – so they are only paying 35 percent of what it costs,” Assistant Parks Director Kimberly McNeely told Council members at last week’s meeting of the City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee.


Those programs cost roughly $500,000 a year. The situation presents Council members with a difficult balancing act: The equalization of program costs versus the needs of low-income residents who rely on such activities as youth sports, summer camp, and after-school programs.


Presented with this information, Council members circled around the idea that non-Austin residents who take advantage of parks youth programs – and who don’t pay the taxes that mostly support them – should cover a larger percentage of their cost.


“I think from looking at the nods on this committee, you will have full support from this committee for full cost recovery from non-residents and on waiting lists for non-residents, and you will also have considerable support for increasing the amount of discounts for (the) low-income and needs-based (population),” said Mayor Pro Tem and Audit Committee Chair Sheryl Cole.


PARD officials left with no firm instructions other than that they should return to the Audit and Finance Committee with more figures. However, it appears as though some of this issue could get worked out as part of this year’s budget process.


Council members instructed PARD officials to examine the fee situation last year. McNeely told Audit and Finance committee members that her re-examination of the problem predates that instruction.


“Prior to 2012 there was really no formal structure or no formal philosophy in place for developing youth programs,” said McNeely. “This is not something that would be unique to Austin. This is actually something that the parks and recreation profession struggles with in that we talk fluff.


“But there has been a push since probably 2010, and probably even a little bit before that, to really start collecting that data,” she continued.


McNeely suggested a handful of remedies. One could include changes to a City of Austin employee parks fee fund that subsidizes such programs as summer day camp for city employees. Another could be that the city charges more for non-Austin residents to take advantage of Parks programs.


Council members could also elect to make some portion – or the entirety – of the city’s parks youth programs available at no cost to area residents. Under that scenario, McNeely told Council members that they would have to be prepared to forgo a portion of the funds that the department sends to the city’s general fund.


Council members appeared to like the idea of making non-residents pick up more of the tab. ”There are a lot of dials here,” said Council Member Laura Morrison. “One of the dials is the non-resident. You’re saying well let’s start with 50 percent cost recovery for non-resident, well why not start with 75 percent there?”


Still, they were wary of affecting low-income out-of-city residents in negative fashion. “I’d be interested in making sure that we can get a lot of subsidization for lower income folks,” added Morrison.


Council Member Bill Spelman echoed those thoughts. “Non-residents are primarily coming, I’m guessing, from West Lake Hills and Rollingwood,” he said. “But not all of our non-resident participants are coming from areas that are able to easily afford those costs – we’ve got a lot of people in Del Valle, for example too.”


Spelman offered a suggestion. “You’ve got Del Valle, which is not a rich neighborhood by any means – you probably wouldn’t get a lot of participation if they had to pay full cost recovery,” he continued. “On the other hand, they have tremendous needs for youth development and after school programs…If there were a way of making a deal with the Del Valle school district or with Travis County for our providing programs outside the city limits where we would have all of our costs recovered through some combination of participant fees and government subsidies – not our government, somebody else’s government…Would that be something which we could consider?”


Hensley indicated that such an arrangement could work.

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