Park Use Soars, But So Do Budget Worries

Participation in booming fee-charging town recreation programs projected to rise 90 percent from 2006 by the end of the year

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Bob Hughes, left, and Judy Moore did there bit to rally this years sharp increase in participation in the town’s recreation program.

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Jarrod Varner was one of thousands of participants in town recreation programs.

When it comes to Payson Parks — you have your good news.

And your awful news.

Which would you like first?

On Wednesday, the Parks and Recreation Board got the good news.

Even with two months left in the year, the number of people paying for parks programs has already jumped 22 percent this year — and 70 percent from two years ago.

And if the last two months even keep pace with last year that should produce a one-year jump of 40 percent and a two-year jump of 90 percent.

So far this year, about 3,400 people have paid fees to participate in various park activities – from softball leagues to photography classes. The same person might be counted twice if he or she paid fees for more than one activity.

In addition, about 24,000 people paid daily fees to use the pool over the summer despite the town council’s decision to shut down the pool nearly one month early as a result of budget problems.

The town’s recreation programs reported sharp increases in use of almost every program this year, many of which pretty much broke even in collecting fees to cover incremental costs.

One major exception to the break-even rule was the operation of Taylor Pool, which had a 20 percent increase in use during the open swim period – but actually had an $8,000 decline in revenue. Parks and Recreation Director Rick Manchester told the board the paradoxical decline in pool revenue probably reflects the success of a discount swim program for regular users and the new practice of giving “rain checks” when summer thunderstorms shut down the swim session in the middle of the day.

In addition, the parks program enrolled about 400 people in swim lessons and could easily have enrolled 600 in a larger pool, said Manchester. The swim lessons brought in about $10,000 of the $40,000 in pool revenue.

The reported rise in participation lifted most park programs this year and Rumsey Park is now so full of activity that the parks board is trying to think of ways to stage activities in other places.

On Wednesday, the parks board reviewed the encouraging numbers for eight different fee-paying classes and six sports leagues, involving thousands of residents and an even larger contingent of game spectators, up a projected 90 percent through the end of the year compared to 2006.

Nearly all of the classes more than covered their own incremental costs, including photography, fishing, a Tonto Bridge hike, Dutch Oven cooking, a Women’s Outdoor Weekend, a Monument Peak Hike and a session on moths and butterflies.

Overall, park programs recovered just over half of their operating cost through fees, with the exception of the pool which recovered about one-quarter of its cost. The department is doing a study on fees, with the hopes of gradually raising fees over the next five years to make more programs self-supporting.

However, the town hasn’t resolved ongoing questions about how to ensure that despite the fees programs remain accessible to low-income families.

Payson, at the moment, recovers a larger share of the parks budget through fees than most cities in Arizona, but less than towns in other areas of the country, according to parks department estimates. Recovery rates in Arizona for public park programs range from about 12 percent in Queen Creek to about 70 percent in Gilbert, according to a survey done by the parks department.

The six softball, soccer and flag football leagues also reported a good year. The spring and fall softball leagues involved 20 teams, each with an average of 12 team members — for about 350 participants. The teams each played 14 games, which drew 20 to 50 spectators to each game. The other six leagues had between 60 and 200 participants each.

But the sharp rise in park usage mostly spurred sober sighs on a board preoccupied with concerns about the upcoming vote on a YMCA recreation center and budget disaster planning, that has prompted the parks staff to contemplate worst-case scenarios that could devastate all of those now-booming programs.

Voters will decide between now and Tuesday whether to approve a plan to lease Taylor Pool and five acres of Rumsey Park land to the YMCA.

In return, the YMCA would raise $5.6 million to build a gym, teen center, recreation center and year-round pool complex. The YMCA would also take over operation of the Taylor Pool and pay $10,000 a year on the lease, which would provide a net boost to the parks budget of about $130,000 annually — about two-thirds of the cost of all the part-time staff.

However, even if voters approve the ballot measure on Tuesday, the YMCA has estimated it will take two years to raise the money and another year to build the new recreation center which means relief for the parks’ budget won’t come anytime soon.

The parks department’s $1.4 million budget took a hit in the current fiscal year, when the council approved an across-the-board spending cut that excluded layoffs for full-time staff and left intact the bulk of the overtime budget for police and fire. As a result, spending in parks that excluded full-time staff declined nearly to 25 percent for the budget year that started in July.

The adopted town budget for the current year projected a modest increase in sales taxes and other revenue, in hopes of a slow, economic recovery. Instead, revenues have already lagged behind even those conservative projections as the national economy slid into recession. Alarmed, the council several weeks ago asked for potential budget savings in the event revenues fall by 15 or 25 percent or even more drastically should the economy lurch into whatever comes next.

The worst-case scenario for the parks would involve a virtual shut-down. Of the parks’ $1.4 million budget, about 60 percent of it pays for staff — and nearly one-third of it goes to the part-timers.

Most town departments rely almost entirely on full-time staff, especially in police and fire, which account for the lion’s share of the town budget. The parks department spends more than $200,000 on part-time staff, mostly referees, lifeguards, instructors and others who run the programs that have expanded so dramatically in the past two years. The department also relies heavily on volunteers in outdoor recreation programs and youth athletics.

One of the more dire budget scenarios would eliminate all the part-time staff, which would shut down all of the fee-generating recreational activities and padlock the pool for the year. Shrinking the parks department budget to the amount necessary to simply maintain the three town parks would net an overall budget savings of about $700,000.

Fee-Paying Parks Activities (excludes open swim)

Year Participants Revenue

2005 2,290 $71,635 (Full year)

2006 2,021 $62,993 (Full year)

2007 2,771 $90,238 (Full year)

2008 3,374 $111,026 (10 months)

Public Swimming Taylor Pool

Year Attendance Revenue

2006 N/A $38,928

2007 19,961 $48,123

2008 24,825 $40,265

Fees 2008 YTD Cost Recovery

Trails/Outdoor Rec $5,455 86%

Rec A—Special Events $28,041 57%

Rec B—Athletics $51,255 60%

Rec C— Equestrian $11,125 52%

TOTAL $95,876 59%

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