Letter to the Times: City of Lawrence should say no to rec center fees

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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If the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department has its way, indoor exercise in Lawrence will soon become “pay to play.”

At a recent meeting of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, LPRD suggested requiring Douglas County residents to pay a $2 fee every time they set foot in a recreation center. Two dollars doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but it adds up quickly. Someone who uses a recreation center five days per week would owe more than $500 per year!

LPRD says that it might waive the entrance fee for people whose income falls within the guidelines for the Wee Folks Scholarship Fund. Unfortunately, that doesn’t solve the problem. The Wee Folks fund uses the same income guidelines as the free and reduced lunch program. Under these guidelines, a family of four making $55,000 wouldn’t qualify for free admission. If that family, collectively, uses the recreation centers 10 times per week, they’d be on the hook for more than $1,000 annually, or nearly 2% of their pre-tax income.

The reality is that, faced with entrance fees, many people — particularly those in lower income brackets — will have little choice but to reduce their visits to the recreation centers or stop using them altogether. Exercise is a cornerstone of good health, and we should not impose economic barriers to this fundamental need.

In previous discussions, LPRD suggested that imposing entrance fees was a “last resort” to close its budget gap. Now, though, LPRD seems to have moved entrance fees to the front burner, without fully exploring other options.

For example, when Sports Pavilion Lawrence opened, there was discussion about leasing the building’s naming rights for a six-figure amount. What happened to that idea? I’m sure I speak for most citizens when I say I’d rather work out at “Company X SPL” than pay to enter regular old SPL. And where are the corporate banners that could hang in the gyms? Sure, it’s nice to have advertising-free walls, but I can handle a giant “Company Y” banner in the background while I play pickleball if the alternative is opening my own wallet.

In Lawrence, we’ve long prioritized access to the health and fitness benefits of our recreation centers, without regard to income. We should not replace this equitable policy with a pay-to-play model, particularly without fully exploring other sources of revenue. The Advisory Board and Lawrence City Commission should reject LPRD’s proposal.

— Steven Koprince (he/him), Lawrence

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