Officials poised to hike parks fees in city

Posted: November 28, 2012

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — City Council appears set to approve a user-group fee formula for parks facilities that could greatly increase the cost nonprofit athletic groups pay to play on public fields.

By a 7-2 vote, the councilors advanced a resolution to approve the implementation of a fee formula beginning July 1. The changes could be approved as early as the council’s Dec. 11 meeting.

Councilor Ben Weber voted against the proposal because he said some increases seemed too high for certain users. Vice President John Willingham said he couldn’t support the measure at this time because he doesn’t know how it might affect the user groups.

The data-driven proposal was crafted by Winchester Parks and Recreation Department staff members and a committee comprised of Parks and Recreation Advisory Board members. The changes would affect groups ranging from the Winchester Royals Valley League Baseball team to the Winchester Swim Team.

Field maintenance and preparation costs were calculated, as were the number of hours each group used city facilities.

Brad Veach, the city’s parks and recreation director, said the goal was to recover a greater percentage of costs through fees. The department currently recovers about $800,000 of the $2.5 million it spends annually.

The formula also factors in the money necessary for periodic capital improvements.

A driving factor in the plan is the high percentage of individual users on teams that are not city residents. Veach said it’s not uncommon for 75 percent or more of a team’s players to be from outside Winchester, so city taxpayer dollars are subsidizing recreation for non-residents.

The formula provides a discount based on the percentage of city residents they report having on their rosters.

Veach added that Winchester is spending about $96 per city resident on parks and recreation this fiscal year.

“That’s rather high,” he said, “and I think it’s high because we spend so much on non-city residents.”

In comparison, he said, Frederick County spends $51 to $52 per county resident on recreation.

Based on 2011 data, fees would rise sharply for several groups over the next three years.

Winchester Baseball paid $6,000 to use fields in 2011. Its cost would jump to $15,318 in 2013, $22,977 in 2014 and $30,636 in 2015 if its facility use remained the same.

The Winchester Swim Team’s fees for pool use would rise to $49,596 in 2015 from $28,611 in 2011. The Blue Ridge Youth Soccer Association would pay $11,138 in 2015 if it spent the same amount of time on fields that it did in 2011, when it paid $1,400.

User groups could reduce their costs by managing schedules and reducing their field time. Veach said parks staff members at times have prepared fields for play only to have them go unused because a game was canceled and the department wasn’t notified.

Some groups contributed to the creation of fields or helped with capital improvements, which Veach said was appreciated, but the ongoing maintenance costs often aren’t considered.

“There seems to be a perception,” he said, “that because they made a contribution a long time ago, they should have unlimited use.”

Willingham asked Veach if the proposal had been discussed with the user groups, saying that the steep hikes could cause some to disband. Veach responded that they were aware that changes were planned but that he hadn’t addressed any specific plan because multiple options were offered and he didn’t know which one council would support.

Council President Jeffrey Buettner noted that at their recent retreat, the councilors set an “ambitious agenda that’s going to cost us some money.” He said paying for that will be challenging, and charging groups the cost of their field use makes sense.

“We need to try not to hit [real estate] taxes every time,” he said. “We’re spending $1.7 million (on recreation) from the general fund, from property taxes. If 75 percent of the users are from Frederick County, we’re carrying them.

“...I know it is a shock, but they got a sweetheart deal for so long.”

City Manager Dale Iman characterized implementing the fee formula as an example of government acting more like a business.

“It seems like we have a problem here,” he said, “that we know the answer to.”

The councilors then voted 9-0 to advance a resolution to approve a new fees for park facilities, programs and activities.

Increases to the fees for things such as facility rentals and swimming classes would be more modest under the proposal, and some prices would drop. Membership fees were not raised.

By a 9-0 vote, the councilors also advanced a resolution to allow Shenandoah University to seek $16 million in Educational Facilities Revenue Bonds through the Mount Jackson Economic Development Authority (EDA).

The Winchester EDA has reached its financing limit for 2012, but Mount Jackson’s authority has capacity left. State law requires City Council to concur with the financing arrangement.

Mitch Moore, SU’s vice president of advancement, said the university wants to have financing arranged in hopes that it can begin a project to build a new health sciences building on the part of the campus in the city.

Attending the meeting at Rouss City Hall were President Jeffrey Buettner, Mayor Elizabeth Minor, Vice President John Willingham, Vice-Mayor Milt McInturff and councilors Evan Clark, John Hill, John Tagnesi, Les Veach and Ben Weber.

— Contact Vic Bradshaw at vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com