Rising Decatur parks and recreation fees causing sticker shockFILE PHOTO: Members of various country dancing groups, including the Chattahoochee Country Dancers, raised concerns about increased parks and recreation fees during the Decatur City Commission meeting on Aug. 21, 2023, at Decatur City Hall. Photo by Zoe Seiler.
Decatur, GA — People who use Decatur’s parks and recreation services have gotten sticker shock from increased fees in the last few months.
The city says it increased the fees in the current fiscal year’s budget to expand offerings, provide enough staff, and reduce the cost to the general fund budget. But people who use these services say the new fees will make those services unaffordable for many.
The city is projecting to receive $4.6 million in parks and recreation fees this fiscal year in total, but some areas of the new department’s budget are not meeting its revenue targets.
Members of the Chattahoochee Country Dancers attended the Aug. 21 city commission meeting to share concerns about the increased fees with the city commission. The group has rented space at the Decatur Recreation Center since at least 1982, Chattahoochee Country Dancers member Seth Tepfer said.
“We have been told our rates are going up from $150 for a Friday night to $560 for a Friday night. Our rates to rent the entire facility for our annual weekend are going up from $1,800 to over $5,000,” Tepfer said.
During the meeting, Tepfer asked the city commissioners what kind of city they wanted to be. He asked for the group’s weekly rent to be $180 and the rent for the yearly dance weekend event to be $2,000.
Those who spoke at the meeting said the increased cost would force the group to find a new space to dance. They advocated for a more moderate increase. Some of the dancers raised concerns about a lack of communication around the fee increases.
“We have to leave if you’re charging us the rents that you’ve been talking about. We absolutely cannot afford what you’ve presented to us,” Amanda Setili said.
The largest fee increases were seen in room and park pavilion rentals. The department created some new fees in areas where residents didn’t have to pay previously, especially for adult sports.
Some of these new fees include a new open gym membership for adults. Activities, like pickleball, now have a monthly fee of $25 for residents and $50 a month for non-residents. Individuals who don’t sign up for the membership pay a drop-in fee of $5 per session for residents and $10 per session for non-residents.
The open gym membership only applies to adult open gym times. Open gym for youth is still offered at no cost, Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Claire Miller said.
In FY 2022-2023, these adult open gyms were free for residents and ranged from $2-$5 for non-residents. The increased fees prompted some longtime users of the city’s recreation centers to look elsewhere.
Resident Steve Brett plays pickleball at the Ebster Recreation Center. He began playing about a year and a half ago. He had played at different places until he realized there was an opportunity to play at Ebster.
Over the summer, the hours made it convenient for Brett to participate during the open gym, and he would see players at various levels at the three courts.
“It was really a great deal, and then they instituted the fees,” Brett said. “I’m a homeowner in the city of Decatur. I own a single-family home. I pay a lot of taxes. It just seems like the facility already exists. I’m not paying for a bond issue or something new. They already maintain it. They already have other things that are going on there.”
He added that when the fees were implemented, some people started looking for alternatives, as he has.
“If I have to pay, then I want more value,” Brett said. “The first thing that happened was when there was open play and there was a lot of opportunity, there were a lot of players. Now, suddenly we’re scrounging for players because anybody who’s outside of the city limits said, ‘I’m not paying $10 per [session].’ They are going elsewhere. I can play outside in three different parks free of charge.”
Resident Stephen Marks primarily plays pickleball at Ebster and sometimes at the YMCA. He has noticed fewer people during open gym times at Ebster Recreation Center.
“Being a resident of the city of Decatur up until this point, it was free. There was no charge. For people out of the city, I think it was nominal. It was like $3 or $5,” Marks said. “Then it jumped way up.”
He said that there are other courts nearby, like in Avondale Estates, that are free to use.
“There are fewer people from what I can tell,” Marks said. “It took everyone by surprise. It was just like a mandate came out one day that said this is going to happen and this is when it’s going to happen. Period.”
Recreation Fees by the Numbers
During the summer, the city of Decatur combined the Children and Youth Services and Active Living Divisions into a new parks and recreation department. With that came increased costs to the general fund and costs that passed on to parks and recreation users.
The parks and recreation fees are charged for the department’s activities, programs, and rentals. The fees account for a portion of the projected expenditures for the current fiscal year. The remaining operating costs are paid for through the general fund, Miller said.
She said that the department is working on a cost recovery strategy that reflects a different approach to providing recreation services.
“The cost recovery approach is based on the idea that to have a sustainable future for parks and recreation, specific cost recovery targets should be set in order to offset the cost of providing programs and services to the community,” Miller said. “Through this strategy, participants in programs and users of services offset a portion of the costs of service provision, while the city’s general fund (i.e. city taxpayers) offsets the remainder.”
But the city increased the fees before implementing a cost recovery strategy. On Aug. 21, the Decatur City Commission approved an agreement with 110%, Inc. to create a financial sustainability plan for the parks and recreation department. 110% will review the current fees and the plan will set cost recovery targets. Miller said it will be a three to five-year plan that will inform the parks and recreation department’s fiscal year 2024-2025 budget, which starts on July 1, 2024.
Decaturish reviewed records and found the city has already taken in slightly more revenue. The city has received $70,957 more in July-October 2023 than it did in July-October 2022. The fee increases were implemented before the city hired a company to create a financial sustainability plan for the new department, however.
In July-October 2021, the department brought $200,222 from the recreation service fees, and $264,043 in July to October 2022. As of Oct. 24, 2023, revenue to date is only $335,000, which does not include after-school programs or rental income.
City Manager Andrea Arnold said in an email that the city’s biggest revenue shortfall at the moment is in its recreation centers.
“The recreation centers are tracking below their targets at this time (current revenue rate is 29% of target),” Arnold said. “Parks and recreation staff teams continue to develop new programming and the department plans to focus our marketing strategies on sharing recreation center offerings to a variety of target audiences in the next few months.”
Arnold said that the department’s revenue fluctuates because of its “seasonal nature,” saying some programs won’t get going until next year, like summer camp. The city is already planning for it and anticipates more revenue for its camps and clinics due to its plans to expand these programs.
The city increased its parks and recreation fees without surveying customers about the increases.
“Our process for setting fees is based on some level of cost recovery rather than on user survey data,” Arnold said. “Surveys during the Recreatur planning process identified programs and facilities desired by the community. As staff, we develop strategies for funding those priorities.”
The city used a few other methods to determine the current fees, Arnold said.
“For facility rentals, we were aiming for 20% increases as a general target but also folded in the 60% cost recovery goals as well as a desire to see greater differences in resident vs non-resident rates (I.e. higher non-resident rates),” Arnold said. “With athletics, we looked at our actual costs against our revenues and looked to improve the degree to which participant fees would cover our actual costs.”
The city commission sets the fee schedule in June, when it sets the millage rate and budget. Arnold told Decaturish that the city followed the same process it has used for about the last 10 years to set the fee schedule, and it applies to every department.
The city commission typically gets the fee schedule at its second meeting in June, and receives the fee schedule at the meeting where they are expected to vote on it.
“Each department has someone who’s scanning the environment for the fees to make sure that one, the fees are in the ballpark…for other fees in the market, and also determining what the market is, and then identifying what does it cost us to provide the service that’s associated with the fee to make sure in all cases we’re never charging more than what its costs us,” Arnold said.
She said that from time to time concerns are raised about the fee schedule, but “by and large the whole fee schedule, including parks and rec fees, have been relatively well received.”
There is a high cost to operating camps and afterschool programs, and the parks and recreation department looks at the market to make sure it’s in line with other afterschool and camp programs in the area, Miller said.
“I think we’re trying to use a similar model across all of our activities is to say based on whose benefitting, how do we split that cost between what the community is going to take responsibility for from the standpoint of taxpayer dollars in the general fund and what’s that individual or that household going to cover so that there’s a contribution on either side of that,” Miller said.
The fee schedule includes hundreds of fees for various city departments, and hundreds of fees for parks and recreation alone. Arnold said that the city has not heard from families participating in some of the other classes, camps and activities.
In addition to the country dancers, bridge players had raised some concerns.
“There are fees for non-residents that I think were not very well received by non-residents perhaps, but at this point I’ve got on one hand some activities where concerns were raised, and then I’ve got about 20 hands where there have not been concerns expressed about the fees,” Arnold said.
The city commission has requested that the fee schedule be presented earlier in the budget cycle.
“We’re going to do better next year. We heard from the city commission that for them to be receiving these recommendations at the second meeting in June and being expected to take a vote on it, it was too much and too short of an amount of time,” Arnold said. “As a staff, we are committed to providing the fee schedule and any changes to the public and to the city commission earlier in 2024.”
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