Lawrence Parks and Recreation begins reviewing its budget, prepares for discussion on $1.2M in fee increases
Recreation center membership fees possible but 'unlikely'
Lawrence Parks and Recreation officials have begun a review of the department’s budget as they prepare to draft possible scenarios for fee increases, including the possibility of creating new fees.
In September, the Lawrence City Commission approved a $1.2 million increase in parks and recreation fees as part of its budget for 2023. Finance Director Jeremy Willmoth said at the time that the details of those fees would be determined later, but that everything was on the table, including increases to pool entrance fees, cemetery fees, facility rental fees, class and program fees, sponsorships, and the implementation of fees to use city recreation centers.
The city’s parks and rec advisory board began discussing the fee increases at its most recent meeting, and has made plans for parks and rec officials to present possible scenarios for fee changes to the board for feedback, after which the draft will be presented to the public for input. Parks and Rec Director Derek Rogers told the board as part of its meeting Monday that the creation of membership fees for the city’s parks and recreation centers, which are currently free, was a “last resort.” Rogers later reiterated that point to the Journal-World, saying that while all options remain on the table going into the discussion, he thinks the creation of membership fees would be “unlikely.”
“We have a unique parks and rec system that is equitable to all, which is unique in the country if you think about it, to be able to walk into a rec center without memberships,” Rogers said. “I think that’s a community value, and that’s why it would be near the bottom of things that we would consider.”
The idea to create entrance or membership fees for parks and recreation centers was first proposed by former City Manager Tom Markus in 2019. At that time, some community members expressed strong opposition to the idea of membership fees, with concerns including access for lower-income residents.
Roger Steinbrock, parks and rec communications and events manager, said the department has more than 1,500 programs, and that the budget review would be comprehensive. Steinbrock said that could mean certain fees increase while others decrease.
“This whole process, staff are being very thoughtful with it and just trying to take everything into consideration, trying to look at where we can lower fees in some respects,” Steinbrock said. “… We know that the economy is not going well for a lot of people and we know it’s going to be a challenge.”
Rogers noted that some program fees have not been adjusted for a few years, while at the same time the department has increased pay rates for some hourly, part-time positions by 30% and still hasn’t been able to hire enough workers. He said possible budget scenarios could also include a combination of fee increases and reductions in certain programs or services. For all considerations, Rogers said that parks and rec staff would be using a cost recovery model that takes into account best practices and subsidizes certain programs based on community values.
“For example, we feel that every child should learn how to swim, and so those (costs) are recovered at a lower rate than, say, a competitive swim team, or something like that,” Rogers said.
The $1.2 million in fee increases approved by the City Commission as part of the 2023 budget included additional funding for scholarships for the department’s many programs. Specifically, the fee increases will help allocate an additional $25,000 toward existing youth scholarships and $30,000 for a new all-ages scholarship.
The city manager’s recommended budget also included the closure of the Prairie Park Nature Center building, but residents voiced strong opposition to that proposal and commissioners restored that funding, expressing interest in looking at ways to make the center more financially sustainable. The city hosted a public discussion on that topic last month, focusing on the center’s programming, hours of operation and ideas to assist the nature center. Rogers said that the department continues to review that feedback and that ideally a discussion about the Nature Center will be included in the upcoming budget discussion with the parks and rec advisory board.
The board proposed a schedule for those discussions as part of its meeting, with the goal of having department officials present information about the department’s budget situation and the first draft of the potential budget scenarios as part of the board’s regular meeting in December. After making changes to the draft based on the board’s feedback, the board plans to gather public input on the budget information and draft scenarios as part of a meeting in January.