Rec Center Fees to Shift, But Not Enough

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Parks Department’s 35 recreation centers play a critical role in the lives of New Yorkers across the city, particularly those who can’t afford private gym memberships. 

That’s why we were alarmed to learn that rec center memberships among adults and seniors plummeted 45.5 percent between 2011 and 2012 – a drop that followed a decision by the Parks Department to double membership fees for adults and more than double fees for seniors in response to a mandated citywide budget reduction. As we warned in 2011, this is a familiar pattern – when fees were first imposed in 2003, membership dropped 10 percent, and when they were doubled in 2007, it dropped 38 percent (though it later rebounded slightly). This time, the increases did not even translate into more revenue for the City.  In fact, because of the dramatic drop in memberships, rec centers brought in less money than the previous year.

Fees may still be less than most private venues, but the increases price out lower income New Yorkers – the very New Yorkers with the fewest alternatives to public rec centers.  Thirty percent of Bronx residents alone – more than 400,000 people – are living at or below the poverty rate of $23,021 per year for a family of four. The annual fair market rent of a two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx is $17,688.  That leaves little more than $5,000 a year to cover all other expenses, from shoes, to school books, to food, to transportation. For these families, that extra $50 a year is simply prohibitive.

Late last month at a City Council Parks Committee hearing, Parks Commissioner Veronica White announced a new $25 dollar annual membership for 18- to 24-year-olds – a group that declined by 55 percent over the past two years.  Commissioner White noted that the leap from a free kid’s membership for a 17-year-old to a full $150 adult membership for an 18-year-old was onerous, and she is hopeful that the new age category and fee will boost young adult membership significantly.  DPR plans to move forward with the process to approve the new fee category, with the goal of putting it into effect July 1st.

This new membership category is a good first step toward bringing New Yorkers back to their rec centers, but NY4P remains concerned that many older adults and seniors still can’t afford the increased fees and will not renew their memberships.  As Council Member Julissa Ferreras of Queens noted at the hearing, there are scores of families in her district for whom $300 for two adults is not affordable.  A representative of the Union Settlement Association in East Harlem voiced similar concerns about seniors in that neighborhood.  

More needs to be done to address the impact of fee increases on low-income adults and seniors.  We look forward to continuing the dialogue we started almost two years ago with the Parks Department about the best way to ensure that the City’s rec centers remain a valuable – and viable – resource for all New Yorkers in all neighborhoods.

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