Monday, May 04, 2009

Arlington County's Parks & Recreation "Cost-Recovery" Model

Last Tuesday, April 28, the Arlington County Board formally adopted a "cost-recovery model" proposed by the Arlington Dept. of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources (DPRCR). Had it not been for the Arlington Soccer Ass'n (ASA) blowing a late whistle and issuing a yellow card, the Board would've adopted this misguided proposal without the least amount of thought going into it.

As it turned out, the Board issued a number of caveats before buying into the DPRCR model, only because about 60 soccer parents let the Board know, at the last minute, that they would not be happy if the model were to lead to a new tax on youth sports in Arlington.

Fortunately, the Board is now on notice that there is significant political opposition out there to monkeying around with the kids' sports leagues for revenue. Although we fully expect to see DPRCR make an attempt to pad its budget with hundreds of thousands of dollars in new fees on youth sports, we hope the Board will be a little skeptical.

Here's what happened. A few months ago, DPRCR rolled out a so-called "cost-recovery model" as a means to justify imposition of new fees. DPRCR had meetings with various user groups, including ASA. The youth sports leagues voiced a number of concerns about the model, resulting in ZERO changes in the model. At the same time, DPRCR indicated that it would seek a fee of up to $10 per player per season to be tacked on to all youth sports.

Then, as budget discussions and meetings began this Spring, DPRCR notified the youth leagues that it would NOT be seeking the fee (yet) as part of the upcoming budget. Accordingly, ASA and other groups stood down. But what DPRCR DIDN'T say was that it was still going to seek approval of the cost recovery model that stood as its basis for seeking the fees.

As a result, the cost recovery model snuck through to the County Board without the Board ever hearing any public comment on it. Various interested County Commissions, such as the Sports Commission, remained in the dark as well.

Then, five days before the County Board meeting at which the cost recovery model was to be formally adopted, DPRCR notified the Sports Commission that it was on the Board's agenda. DPRCR did not notify ASA at all; instead, ASA learned of the pendency of the model from the Sports Commission. However, when ASA asked to be heard on the issue, it was told that the period for public comment had already passed.

Fortunately, ASA has an email listserv with nearly 10,000 names on it (both parents of more than 5000 youth soccer players), so it was quickly able to get word out that the Board was about to adopt a model that inexorably would lead to a kiddie tax on youth sports. Although the email didn't go out until the day of the County Board's meeting, Board members still received more than 60 emails on what they had previously thought was an uncontroversial cost recovery model. Of course, they thought it was uncontroversial because DPRCR had skillfully managed to sneak it through without letting the public know what was going on.

County Board members have been quick since then to say that the cost recovery model is simply "conceptual," and to make clear that there will be plenty of public comment before any youth sports tax (or "fee" as they prefer to call it) is imposed.

While we're happy that County Board members have somewhat backed away from the DPRCR model, they really ought to send it back to DPRCR for additional input, and schedule a public forum at which BOARD MEMBERS can get INPUT from affected parties--not just from DPRCR.

As it stands, the model is quite flawed. We won't go into all the reasons here, this already being a long post. The basic problem is one of fairness. Conceptually, it makes sense for DPRCR to set cost recovery "targets" for various activities. In this case, DPRCR set forth a pyramid under which activities are classified into different levels of community versus individual benefit. At the tip of the pyramid are activities that involve 100% individual benefit (and thus merit 100% cost recovery), whereas at the base are activities that can be viewed as 100% community benefit.

By way of example, a specialized class that teaches someone a skill is highly individual, while open parkland is communal.

Unfortunately, however, DPRCR made some nonsensical judgments along the way, such as placing tennis courts and dog parks in the 100% community benefit level, while placing youth sports at a level judged as "primarily" bestowing an individual benefit. A youth playing ping pong, pool or basketball in a community center is considered to be primarily "communal," while that same youth, if playing ORGANIZED basketball or soccer is considered primarily "individual."

The County Board should've asked a lot of questions of DPRCR as to how it came up with these inconsistent classifications, but it didn't. Indeed, the County Board spent more time discussing whether a new hotel development should be required to have overhead garage doors on its parking garage than it spent discussing the merits of the cost recovery model.

A good question asked by ASA officials in a letter (posted online) to the County Board was why their kids should have to pay a new fee while adult tennis players and dog park users get free use of County facilities; or why a bunch of Alexandria cab drivers can use the Barcroft synthetic soccer field day in and day out for free while ASA kids have to pay a fee to practice on some muddy field with clumps of weeds growing out of it.

We fully anticipate that the revenue hungry DPRCR will seek to impose some sort of fee on youth sports by next Spring (2010). It should be an interesting battle, especially if DPRCR can't cure the inequities inherent in its flawed model.

We have the following advice for the County Board if such a fee becomes necessary: 1. make sure everyone, not just youth sports, is paying a fee; 2. tie the fee to improvements in recreational facilities as opposed to padding the DPRCR payroll; and 3. keep the fee very low (below $5). If recreational users can see the money being put to good use to improve facilities, they are much more likely to accept it. In constrast, if youth soccer parents playing at Bluemont have to pay for the privilege while their childless neighbors get to play tennis, for nothing, on nice courts right next to the soccer field, they're going to be upset.

1 comment:

Cathy said...

Remind the county they can't go after kids without going after doggy park users too. As you said, we are willing to pay a little more if they can show us what it is going to. I thought Arlington was a progressive place -- what's with this regressive tax on kids?