Local parks impose new fee

Some of Tallahassee’s youth may have to look for new after school options come Nov. 17. With the city bringing in lackluster revenues for the budget, the city commission was forced to severely cut department budgets, including the city’s department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Affairs.

The Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Affairs department is responsible for providing funding for 94 parks, seven community centers, two golf courses, a skate park, tennis facilities, and several pools and a gymnastics center, according to the department’s Web site.

In an attempt to make up for the failing economy and recent cuts, the commission has developed a new policy that will cost parents a weekly $10 fee per child for children that attend community centers.

Dee Crumpler, the department’s director said, “When you factor in salaries and benefits for employees, maintenance and upkeep, utility costs, its becomes very expensive to operate (a community center).”

So much so, that the department actually lost three managerial positions at three different community centers because of the expenses, which totaled roughly $165,000. With the new $10 fee, Ashley Edwards, assistant director of the department said they have projected a profit of about $271,000, which would help the department recover almost 2 percent of the money spent from their budget.

“We are attempting to recover at least a portion of costs,” Edwards said. “Given the current economic climate, the city must reduce expenses or increase revenue or we can’t continue to provide services.”

The fee came up in budget hearings in April and the commission made the final budget recommendation on Sept. 28. Crumpler said the policy took effect Oct. 1, and shortly after, a letter was sent out on Oct. 16 that said the fee would begin by mid November.

“There was discussion to give the community even longer to prepare, but the revenue started being deducted from our budget, Oct. 1,” Crumpler said. “[The fee] could have actually been effective immediately, but we were trying to consider the impact it would have on families and we needed time to determine how we would implement the policy.”

In order to take the edge off the fee for parents, Crumpler said community center supervisors will evaluate families that qualify for public assistance or have other considerable circumstances, and offer fee waivers to those that meet the criteria, so that no child will be turned away.

So far, the director said he has not heard any concerns over the fee from any community centers except for the Walker-Ford Community Center, located at 2301 Pasco Street.

“I think management [at other community centers] were able to talk to their constituents,” Crumpler said. “Many of our community centers serve the same demographics so one would say it would have the same type of impact [everywhere].”

Joe Thomas, supervisor of the Walker-Ford Community Center, and none of the city’s commissioners were able to be reached before publication.

But County Commissioner Bill Proctor said he is does not support the new policy and that the reason why other community centers have not made a fuss over the fee is because they don’t have student mentors, like Walker-Ford.

Proctor said he had no idea about the fee until a few weeks ago. He credits his students for informing him and helping to get the word out.

“[The only reason I knew was] because of the student mentors [and] educated young people, who are in the trenches working with the kids…they recognize this policy and you don’t have mentor groups at those other centers,” Proctor said. “People don’t have the capacity to respond, as those college students did and that’s why you have silence around the other places. But you got students here and they didn’t let this go down.”

Danielle Alexander, a 2007 graduate from Florida A&M University and mentor at Walker-Ford, has been working with the other mentors to rally parents and other community members to take action. Since becoming informed about the fee, she has been instrumental in beginning a petition and organizing town hall meetings where parents can interface with commissioners and representatives from Crumpler’s department. She and the other mentors have also passed out flyers around the neighborhood, talked with teachers and some even went to the polls during the election to inform people about the new policy, while they were waiting to vote.

Lisa Herring-Jones, a mother of four and Tallahassee resident, said student mentors like Alexander informing others of the new fee is important.

She has two daughters that have been active in the center’s teen counseling support group for years and sees the center and others like it as a safe haven in the community.

Herring-Jones also said she believes the parents of children that can’t afford the fee or don’t qualify for waivers could end up with their children becoming more vulnerable to gang related activity, drugs, teen pregnancy and high crime rates. She added that although she has no children that will be affected by this new fee, she sympathizes with parents who don’t qualify for fee waivers and will have to come up with the money on their own.

“It would be devastating to my budget if all my kids were still young, so I can only imagine how detrimental [the fee] could be,” Herring-Jones said. “In order to qualify you must be making little close to nothing.”

Herring-Jones continued.

“[The children from the neighborhood] are all our kids and I feel like I’m representing all the parents in the community that might be single, working two and three jobs and those that can’t be there for their children or for town hall meetings,” she said

Alexander also believes her role as a mentor is pivotal for Walker-Ford attendees and that it’s her job to pick up the slack for the parents.

“…Kids are here from 1:45 to 5:30 and sometimes later… sometimes til 10 o’clock at night because they dread going home,” Alexander said. “I just think it’s wrong to say well their parents aren’t here and the community doesn’t care. It’s really not about that, it’s about the fact that those that are here care about the children.”

With the department sticking to their “no child turned away” mantra, many are wondering what’s the purpose of the fee if there will be so much wiggle room with the waivers.

“If they will be using the waivers and not turning children away then there is no purpose for the waiver,” Alexander said. “They are just trying to balance the city’s budget on the backs of poor people in the community. But children should be the top priority.”

Proctor insists that the people that will be affected already pay their taxes and the money could be taken from some other department. He said he believes the people who utilize the services the community centers provide are being exploited with the fee.

“These are the poorest people in town and $40 a month for each child exceeds what these people can afford to pay,” Proctor said. “You always cut money from those who have the least capacity to resist. These poor people don’t… know what’s going on so they always get the first a**-kicking.”

Crumpler said he and the commission talked about asking the community to help fund some of these programs and other efforts to raise private dollars. But in the end, the commission decided the fee would be the best option to explore first.

“We did a lot of research, and looked at how places like the Boys and Girls Club does things, how the school district does after school fees and we also analyzed the private sector,” Crumpler said. “And by far we are one of, if not the cheapest option for parents. Many people are paying $100 a week or more for after school care and some a lot more than that.”

In addition to the research his department conducted, fee increases have also been added to other areas that fall under Crumpler’s department, including adult sports.

Currently Crumpler said adult sports are operating on 100 percent cost recovery, which means they are trying to recuperate all the costs associated with running the programs.

“After school services are no where near 100 percent cost recovery and even if we got $10 from every student, it would still only be about 25 percent of the costs,” Crumpler said. “[The after school services] are and will continue to be heavily subsidized by the commission and city because we realize the importance of having healthy options for our kids.”

He maintains that the city and the department are not going to turn children away. But the programs are very costly to operate and they must find ways to offset those costs.

Proctor said he is hopeful the policy will be sunset or axed at the end of the fiscal year, while Crumpler continues to pursue the pilot program, if only to see if “the juice is worth the squeeze.”

“We will do the program until the end of school year and look at the impact it has on the centers, the amount collected and the program’s issues and go back to the city manager and eventually the mayor to ask ‘is it working and what do we need to do to tweak it?'” he said.

In spite of the city’s desire to test the waters with the fee, community members are still attempting to mobilize against it.

Herring-Jones has joined Walker-Ford’s mentors in order to urge other parents and community members to get more involved.

“We can’t wait until the doors [of a community center] get slammed in the face of a child,” Herring-Jones said. “But on second thought, maybe that’s what it will take to get people involved in this issue.”