At the same time that Colorado Springs' Parks and Recreation program cuts the ribbon on several new aquatic parks -- replete with water flues, climbing structures, floating sculptures and water guns -- an increasing numbers of middle- to lower-income children and other residents are being priced out of participation in city-run recreation programs.
"More and more," said community activist Rev. Promise Lee, "the situation in this town is such that if you can't pay, you can't play, and more and more kids are unable to pay what it's taking these days to play."
Over the past five years, admission to city pools has increased by 375 percent for children (from $1 to $3.75) and 265 percent for adults (from $2 to $5.25).
According to the city Parks and Recreation's pool fee schedule, the price of a season pass has more than tripled, from $200 to $660.
By comparison, admission to outdoor city pools in Denver is 50 cents for children and $2 for adults (out-of-state resident pay $1 and $3 respectively), according to Sherry Clark, aquatics director for Denver's city parks.
"That's well beyond the means of many of the families in the neighborhoods around Memorial Park," said Lee of Colorado Springs prices, "especially if they have four or five kids."
Lee said in the 1950s, children paid a $3 fee to the city to participate in city-sponsored football, baseball and hockey -- and even that was waived for hardship cases. Fees for participation now run as high as $37.50 per sport, he said.
Making the wrong friends
Sam Dunlap, a 20-year resident of the Memorial Park neighborhood who works as a liaison between Parks and Recreation and District 11, said more and more of his neighbors are being priced out of participation in city recreation facilities, and with worrisome consequences.
"Instead of swimming or playing baseball," Dunlap said, "those kids are walking the streets and hanging out at the Citadel Mall, making the wrong friends, spending their days fighting and shoplifting. They're ending up in the courts."
Parks and Recreation manager Paul Butcher said the city's recreation fees are determined by a formula that he recommended and implemented in 1995.
"When I became director [of parks]," Butcher said, "there was no consistency as to how recreation fees were determined. I set about creating a policy that gives us a way to formulate fees in a consistent and uniform way."
The change in policy, however, reflected a significant shift in philosophy. Parks and Rec chose to begin administering the city's recreation programs in a more business-oriented, cost-recovery fashion that produced a dramatic rise in fees.
Another shift in the city's philosophy is from offering the traditional basic swimming pool with a diving board toward constructing fancy aquatic parks that draw more people.
"We decided to bring fees into line with the cost of doing business," Butcher said. "Now, the fee charged is determined by the cost of running the programs, and that includes the salaries of full-time and part-time employees, clerical materials, utilities, instructors, T-shirts, bats, shoulder pads, officials, and on and on."
Butcher, and manager of sports programs J.J. Klikus, defend the dramatic rise in fees, claiming that the increase hasn't been all that much and that the days of a low-cost ride are long gone.
"A 375 percent increase in swimming admissions looks high," said Butcher, "but so does an increase from 25 cents to 50 cents. I disagree that an increase from $2 to $5.25 is all that dramatic."
Butcher said he hasn't received any complaints from the public on rising costs or from parents claiming their child can't afford to participate in city sports and recreation programs.
"Participation in city rec programs is growing steadily," he said. "I'm not aware of a single instance where inability to pay has excluded a kid from participation."
His department, he said, has a scholarship program for hardship cases, and fees are halved if a children's parents can demonstrate the family is on some form of public assistance or that the child qualifies for a free-lunch program at school.
"City Council meets twice a month, the parks board meets once a month, and I'm accessible over the phone or by e-mail," he said. "If there are parents out there unhappy with the way things are, they should let that be known. We'll find a way to get their kid into the program."
Blame the voters
Klikus, meanwhile, blames the rise in fees on voter parsimony. Specifically, he targeted the failure of voters to approve April's SCIP-01 ballot measure that would have provided $20 million for construction of new pool and recreation complexes.
"The community let it be known that it will pay for public works and fire and police protection, but not for recreation," he said. "I guess [taxpayers would] rather have a cop to arrest someone for committing a crime than provide wholesome activities and diversionary activities that keep kids from doing bad things, that develop their assets and provide a place to hang out with friends instead of stealing hubcaps."
Like Butcher, Klikus claimed the rise in recreation fees "isn't as dramatic as some people make it out to be."
"Yeah, some claim it's a lot for a family of four to pay $20 to swim for a couple hours, but I challenge them to go to a movie or play miniature golf for the same amount," he said.
"The people making an issue out of this are the people accustomed to artificially low prices," he said. "They want everything for nothing, and that's not going to happen in today's environment. The community has said it wants the people who use city recreation facilities to be the ones to pay for them."
Klikus reiterated that, though Parks and Rec has been charged by the community and by City Council to recover the cost of doing business, the department offers breaks to low-income children.
"If they can convince us that they can't afford the fees," he said, "we're not going to tell the kid he can't play -- even though Mom may be using that money to buy a six-pack instead," he said.