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The rate debate

Council discussion on rec center rates at a standstill
The indoor track and weight room of the North Liberty Recreation Center. Efforts are being made to revise the rec center’s fee system, which has been virtually unchanged for nearly 15 years. During their June 12 session, the city council unanimously rejected an initial measure to add an annual fee for track use. Recreation Director Shelly Simpson anticipates implementation of a new fee system by fall 2018. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY– Efforts to revise the nearly 15-year-standing fee system at the North Liberty Recreation Center have been stifled, for now. While the measure may have been unanimously rejected by the city council, residents of North Liberty can anticipate changes coming to the rate structure in late 2018.
“We see a shift between operations covered by user fees and tax base,” Recreation Director Shelly Simpson told the North Liberty City Council meeting during its Tuesday, June 12, session. While the fee-to-tax ratio five years ago was roughly 60/40, Simpson said, “Today, we’re really close at 50/50 and even dropping down to more tax dollars to cover operations versus user fees, and so that’s what’s prompted this proposal.”
The leadership team at the recreation center and the Parks and Recreation Commission has been discussing revision of rates for the last few months, with initial talks going back four years.
The initial proposal featured increased, all-inclusive daily drop-in fees ($4 for resident adults and $3 for kids; $5 for non-resident adults and $4 for kids), discontinuation of monthly fees to encourage patrons to opt for an annual membership and having memberships provide identification of users. Gold and Silver memberships would remain the same. As opposed to currently defining residents as those with a 52317 zip code, the plan would encompass residents within the city limits. Simpson said the logistics of determining this are still being figured out.
Whereas indoor track use is currently free to residents, Simpson’s proposal included a track/open gym membership of $10 per year, a choice that attracted the majority of council debate.
“With 32,716 individual uses in calendar year 2017, the data confirms this amenity is a heavily used part of the facility, which then requires daily maintenance. In 2015, nearly $70,000 was spent to resurface the indoor track,” Simpson explained in a memo to the council.
“This proposal simplifies the package offerings. It decreases the cost of annual memberships– in several instances– to be competitive in the market and encourage purchase of longer-term packages,” she continued. “The Facility/Track package was added as a new option for individuals that only use track and open gym activities; for example, Park Board’s recommendation of $10 annual fee for an adult resident calculates to $0.03 per day. The $5 annual fee for a child/senior resident calculates to $0.01 per day and the family rate of $20 calculates to $0.06 per day.”
The resolution proposed before the council led to a seesaw debate among its members, who shared similar yet varied analyses. They voiced hesitance at charging residents for track use and cited a lack of data needed to properly assess the situation– specifically, how many non-residents use the track.
“I’ve always liked that the track is free,” council member Jim Sayre said. “Respecting that, we also have bills to pay, and there’s expenses associated with the business we do,” he added, suggesting non-resident users shouldn’t be subsidized by the taxpayers of North Liberty.
Council member Chris Hoffman voiced concern that an ID could “pose a barrier” for kids, emphasizing the rec center is supposed to be an accessible “safe place” for local youth.
“I think of this mostly just from the vantage point of a kid. They call it free and reduced lunch because there’s an option for it to be free at the schools as well,” he explained, favoring a free option for those who qualify for financial aid through the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP).
Council member Annie Pollock pointed out the lack of fees for the library, camp areas and parks and trails and suggested the track follow this pattern. “I think it’s something that a lot of North Liberty residents take a lot pride in, our parks and rec,” she insisted. “So I would just like this, fundamentally, to be something where there’s no barriers for anyone, regardless of your income level if you’re a resident, to utilize the track for free.”
“Instead of messing it over like it is, would it be better just to have the track free for one year pending reevaluation?” Mayor Terry Donahue asked. “That gives us time to build a case.”
Hoffman proposed an initial amendment, but after some reevaluation, recanted and proposed a free membership option for track use to those who qualify for free lunch, to be defined further by city staff. The amendment was defeated.
Councilor Annie Pollock followed with her own amendment that would offer the track free to all North Liberty residents. Her amendment fell just shy of a majority.
The original resolution then failed 0-4 with one absent, leaving the fees unchanged for now.
Moving forward, Simpson plans to gather the newly requested information and offer a new proposal to the council. The revised plan is to not have a fee for the track, but to document track use via a facility pass.
Simpson said she feels the rates are very reasonable compared to other local gyms and clubs.
“There’s not a lot of places that you can go for $25 per month,” she said. “What’s unique about our facility, though, is we do have the weight and exercise area, plus the pools. A lot of facilities don’t have that option, and so we’re trying to make it user friendly and specific to what area a patron is using.”
Simpson hopes to present a revised fee plan to the city council next month and provide answers to their questions on recreation center use.
“I hope by the fall, probably, to incorporate it,” she said of the revised fee system. “I’ll keep plugging away and getting that information they need.”