Fee Flight

Membership at Tucson's Parks and Recreation centers takes a dive

It's a hushed Saturday morning at the Donna R. Liggins Recreation Center on Tucson's near northside. And to longtime neighborhood resident Armando Vargas, that's precisely the problem.

Today, with the exception of a receptionist, we're just about the only folks in the center's crisp, modern and largely vacant lobby. "Once you felt you were in your home when you came here," Vargas says. "That feeling isn't there any longer."

Tucson's Parks and Recreation Department has become so myopic about squeezing revenue from rec centers such as Liggins, he says, that it has alienated the very neighborhoods those centers were created to serve.

And Vargas knows a bit about the mechanics of hospitality; now retired, he was a longtime director of the UA's Student Union. He traces the Liggins Center's demise partly to fee hikes launched by the Parks Department during the recession's darkest days. But there's something else at work as well, he suggests, an indifference epitomized by the department's recent attempt at transferring the center's beloved "Eggstravaganza" Easter event to Reid Park.

Fuming neighbors vented their frustration at a Feb. 25 meeting with Ward 3 City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich and Parks Director Fred Gray.

In the end, Eggstravaganza was returned to Liggins.

The fee boosts, however, are not so easy to reverse. They date from January 2010 when, wallowing in red ink, the City Council commanded departments to cut costs and raise cash. As the Parks Department budget tumbled from a 2008 peak of $49.7 million—and with deep cuts on the horizon—Gray responded with a 33 percent staff reduction, abbreviated operating hours at its 14 centers, and a revamped fee schedule.

The new fee structure, which ultimately received the council's blessing, based price on use. The broader a program's reach—municipal swimming pools, for instance—the lower the cost to participate. But those attending more individualized "leisure" classes, ranging from ceramics to swim lessons, were expected to pay full freight, with fees ranging from $40 to $60. The cost to those who led such classes rose as well.

Many services that had essentially been free—such as just hanging around a center to watch the tube—now came with a fee attached. But perhaps the biggest adjustment came in the after-school Kidco program, which went from mostly free in 2008 to $500 per kid in 2012.

Although many programs offer discounts and payment plans for low-income families, the predictable result of shortened hours and accelerating fees was that membership plummeted at many centers. The southside El Pueblo Activity Center, for example, saw its membership drop from roughly 2,000 in 2010 to just half that two years later. Other centers, from Udall to Santa Rosa, saw similar drops. At Liggins, memberships fell from just more than 400 in 2009 to 200 in 2012. Fee hikes and staff reductions hit Kidco even harder, with registration shrinking from 7,692 children in 2009 to 4,216 three years later.

To critics, exacting such fees on the city's poor and fixed-income citizens signals skewed priorities, particularly for a department that still managed to spend roughly $5 million on the zoo's new elephant exhibit—a display also predicted to cost taxpayers $400,000 annually to maintain.

But according to Gray, the City Council's mandate left little alternative to the painful hikes. He also disagrees with critics who see those increases as indicative of a floundering department. "That's certainly their perception," he says. "We have restructured our department, and there are also new people in different places. You would anticipate some growing pains, but we've always had fees and charges, even if they weren't being implemented across the board."

Yet that perception is also apparently shared by Councilwoman Uhlich, particularly after she sat through a couple of meetings about the Liggins Center. "It's clear that we need to work with the Parks Department on what the results of the new fee structure have been, and how it's being implemented," she says.

That includes scrutinizing new or raised fees. "I think it's a dollar just to use the centers," she says. "For very low-income seniors and other people who just want to come in out of the heat in the summer, and sit and rest in a safe place, even a dollar a day can sometimes be more than they can afford."

But it also involves rethinking a reportedly ham-handed approach toward people who've long volunteered their time at the centers, organizing everything from basketball camps and dance classes to Easter-egg hunts. It seems that Parks has managed to ruffle more than a few of them.

"What we heard was that maybe part of the issue was the fees, but it was also just the way we are communicating and working with people who have been our partners over the years," Uhlich says. "It's important, when groups come in and have really been generous in offering programs and services, that we not surprise them (with new fees) and lose them.

"We need to make sure that people are treated with respect, and that there's enough discretion on the staff's part to administer these policies in a humane way. ... It's a difficult challenge, but I also think that executive-level people within the city government ought to be able to meet that challenge."

She points to the Eggstravaganza event as exemplifying a "culture shift" away from the community within the Parks Department. "When you take an event that's 15 years in the making—one that isn't even primarily sustained by Parks and Rec—and move it out from under the people who made it possible, then we're somehow losing track of Parks and Rec as a service that really needs to stay rooted in the community."

Clarence Boykins was also at that February meeting. As a longtime community leader and president of the Tucson Southern Arizona Black Chamber of Commerce, he sees deeper dynamics at work—such as weakened neighborhood clout and the city's penchant for dictating from the top down. "The No. 1 positive change would be an inclusive working relationship with those neighborhood people," Boykins says. "Quit assuming that you know what they need."

Back at the Liggins Center, Armando Vargas hopes that Parks will again find its footing, before falling numbers result in unforeseen consequences. "Parks and recreation programs started in the late 19th century to keep kids out of trouble," he says. "That philosophy has always been part of the parks and recreation model. Give people something to do, and let them see their tax dollars at work."

Though soft and unassuming, his voice still bounces along these quiet hallways, suggesting that our tax dollars may have stopped working about three years ago.