Editorial: Surely the city can figure out how to create a fair fee at recreation centers

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Undoubtedly there is a low-income resident who never sets foot inside a City of Lawrence recreation center.

Maybe he takes his evening jog on his local sidewalk because he likes the friendly waves and the interaction with the neighborhood. (Stop right there. Don’t use this as an excuse to argue about sidewalks.)

Or maybe she does her daily situps and pushups on the living room floor because that is a whole lot easier way to keep an eye on the kids.

Or, perhaps, a good old-fashioned blue-collar job that involves a lot of physical labor is enough exercise for the week.

Whatever the case, a lot of low-to-moderate income Lawrence residents who are just working to pay their pay bills don’t give a whit about going to a recreation center. What they do care about is being able to live more cheaply in Lawrence.

Is anybody thinking about that group of residents as city officials debate whether to charge fees at recreation centers?

There certainly has been a lot of talk about how low-income residents will be treated unfairly if they have to start paying for admission to recreation centers. Indeed there are low-to-moderate income residents who do use recreation centers and will find the fee difficult. But why do we think that group of people is larger than the group of low-to-moderate income people who simply want to live more cheaply in Lawrence and could care less about their access to a recreation center?

Why do we think there aren’t a larger number of low-to-moderate income people irked that thousands of Lawrence residents of ample means pay no fee to go work out on a treadmill while low income people struggle to pay their grocery bills?

There are likely lots of low-to-moderate income residents who rightly believe there are middle-to-upper class residents who rather painlessly would fork over a fee to get access to their recreation center workout room or a city gym to relive their glory days in a pickup basketball game. Go get that low-hanging money, and perhaps, the city wouldn’t have to ask low-income households for so much in taxes to pay for other government needs.

That is what this fee issue is about, although the point can easily be forgotten. If users of recreation services pay more directly for those services, then fewer general tax dollars are needed to pay for them. Theoretically, those freed-up tax dollars can be used to lower taxes, or at least forestall the need for tax increases to keep up with the cost of inflation and such. Yes, the theory often breaks down in Lawrence because the community is predisposed to think of new ideas of how to spend money, and often believes government programs are the best way to provide a service.

Even though we can’t be guaranteed the city will properly use these savings, we should still try to collect the low-hanging revenue, so to speak. The one-time $5 fee for kids helps ensure that population won’t be hit too hard. But perhaps a good compromise for the rest of the population would be to charge fees at all the recreation centers except one. Designate one center — maybe East Lawrence or the Community Building — to be free. Make sure it is on a public transit route. That would ensure there always is a free place and would relieve the city from creating some type of income-based fee waiver system, which sounds like a hassle to manage.

Yes, that would mean some people would live closer to a “free” recreation center than others, but so what? The world — and even Lawrence — is too big for life to be completely equal at all times. We’ll accomplish a lot more as a community if we focus on being fair rather than equal. And if that system proves unworkable, it is easy to change.

We should figure out a way to implement a fee system. Think of this: How does the community ever hope to tackle an issue as complex as affordable housing if we can’t even figure out how to collect a modest fee from a wealthy resident who wants to use a city-owned treadmill?


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