Saturday, November 01, 2014

Are ORC fees the only option?

By CLINTON DICK, Herald Staff Writer | 12/23/2013

The Ottawa Recreation Commission is moving ahead with plans to begin charging a fee Jan. 1 for use of the Ottawa Community Recreation Center/Goppert Building. But that hasn’t stopped residents from offering alternate solution suggestions for an ORC financial fix.

A number of Ottawans appeared before the ORC board at their December meeting, proposing ideas that could avert the new fee, which was approved by a unanimous vote Nov. 13.

The Ottawa Recreation Commission is moving ahead with plans to begin charging a fee Jan. 1 for use of the Ottawa Community Recreation Center/Goppert Building. But that hasn’t stopped residents from offering alternate solution suggestions for an ORC financial fix.

A number of Ottawans appeared before the ORC board at their December meeting, proposing ideas that could avert the new fee, which was approved by a unanimous vote Nov. 13.

Former board member Bill Wright, Ottawa, suggested the ORC “suspend the implementation of its user fees for whatever time is necessary so the ORC board can pursue other avenues of funding such as the school board, the City of Ottawa, donors and possibly an additional mill levy.” Wright had a slot on the meeting’s agenda and was allotted time to speak to the commissioners on the issue.

“Your mill levy brings in $113,000,” he said. “If you are only needing $130,000 to make it through the year, a quarter of a mill is all you need. Is that something that is doable? I don’t know, but it is at least something that can be looked at.”

Wright also asked about exactly who would face a fee at the Goppert building.

“If you are going to charge, why then wouldn’t you charge everybody that came into the building?” he said. “Even if you have a basketball night, your bathrooms are being used, trash is being dumped all over. What is the difference between them and a person who goes upstairs and walks, doesn’t use the facilities, and then leaves? To me there are different degrees of usage in this building. Just my opinion; I wanted to throw that out.”

The ORC’s current plans only involve charging those who are coming in to use the Goppert Building, not those who are there to attend or participate in the separate ORC programs. The approved fees are set at $2 per day for ages 12 through 59; and $1 per day for ages 6 through 11 and 60 and older. Children age 5 and younger would be admitted free. There also will be a punch-card system where people can purchase punch cards for a lower per-day price. The punch cards prices are set at 30 passes for adults at $1.75 per day for a total of $52.50; 90 passes for adults at $1.50 per day for a total of $135; 30 passes for children/seniors at 75 cents per day for a total of $22.50; 90 passes for children/seniors at 50 cents per day for a total of $45.

Wright expressed his concern about the high prices of the fees, noting the addition of fees to the Goppert Building gave it the feel of a YMCA recreation facility.

“I really believe that alternate funding should be looked at so that everyone can use the facility free of charge if at all possible,” Wright said. “I know you are not trying to do this, but I keep going back to this thing of it seems like a YMCA now. There is just something about the YMCA that has a crawl in me that I just hate. I’ve lived here all my life and used the ORC since I was in middle school, and I still use it.”

Wright also suggested the board look into its hours of operation, which currently are set at 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Wright said he was concerned the ORC could be losing people coming in by not opening a half-hour earlier on weekday mornings.

Dan Stepp, ORC board chairman, later addressed Wright’s idea about opening early.

“You mentioned opening a half hour early every morning,” he said. “I agree, we probably lose some folks there, but we’ve got extra staff to pay for and utilities to pay for. These are things we are trying to balance all the way through.”

Wright was not the only former board member with concerns at the December meeting. During the public discussion period, former board members Tony De La Torre and Brian Sharp were allotted three minutes to address the board. De La Torre expressed his concern about the board not holding a public hearing before making the decision to implement fees.

“I’m not here to downgrade or anything like that in regards to the decisions you made, but I think it might have been a good idea prior to making that decision to have a public hearing of some sort or a public meeting to allow the community ample opportunity to ask questions or for you to be able to inform them of exactly why the reasons behind the decision was made,” he said.

Like Wright, De La Torre was also in favor of reaching out to other entities in Ottawa and Franklin County to work through funding issues.

“I’d like to mention especially to the [city-appointed] members of this committee that during the past five years, [the Ottawa school district] mill levy and the ORC has in fact put capital improvements to the swimming pool, Orlis Cox and to Don Woodward almost $500,000,” he said. “That is the capital improvements that have gone into city properties. During that period, I don’t believe the city commission, nor the City of Ottawa has contributed to any of these capital improvements. I might suggest that you might want to meet with the city commission or the city management staff and see if there is a way for them to take care of the capital improvements, and then the folks at the ORC look at taking care of the funding for the staff and programs.

“I’m not saying I am against the fees, I am trying to bring suggestions to where it would help keep the community coming in here without fees if we can get these other assets coming in,” he said.

Sharp, on the other hand, commended the board for the work it had done in working out the fees.

“I think it is a wonderful idea the way it has been packaged,” he said. “If I understand correctly, it is going to be a targeted revenue enhancement for people who go up on the second floor to use the cardio machines. To me, that makes perfect sense that they should be the ones who pay the upgrades and anything that goes on up there.”

After the comments from all three past ORC commissioners, current board members addressed the fee issue. Russ Wilson, ORC board member, said staff members reached out to many other sources during the past few months.

“It wasn’t like we made this decision in haste; this has been a topic for three or four months,” Wilson said. “Tommy [Sink, ORC director] and the staff have been flipping over every rock. We just got done going to the school board asking for an increase in our mill levy not three or four months ago for benefits. We just didn’t feel like we could go back to the school board and say, ‘By the way, we need to hit that well again.’

“The fact of the matter is, I think we have looked into every avenue that we’ve thought was possible. Nobody sitting here wants to do it, but if we don’t do something, it’s not going to be here to use.”

Dennis Tharp, ORC board member, agreed and added that the staff will also be working to help offset costs.

“What happens down the road is dependent on where everything goes,” Tharp said. “The staff has also been asked to do fundraisers, to come up with fundrasing events and to do some things to offset [costs].

“Some of the things you all have talked about have been explored and have been talked about with very poor results. My take on it at this time is we do need to move forward with where we are at.”

Stepp entertained the idea of suspending the fees for 90 days to look over other options before statements were made by fellow commissioners, saying the implementation of fees was not an easy decision.

“This is a challenging issue for everyone, for the board members and the community,” Stepp said. “The community has given the ORC so many dollars to work with, and we are trying to stretch those dollars as tight as we can. There is nothing any of us would like better than to open the doors in the morning, lock them at night and have people come and go. That would be terrific. The practicality is, there are additional operating expenses for having this facility here. We are trying to be fair and equitable to everybody.”

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