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Parks & Rec Seeks Funding Choices

Janis Collins, chairwoman of the Westport Parks and Recreation Commission, wrote this letter:

The Westport Parks and Recreation Commission is seeking public comment on the priorities, fees and funding structure for the town's parks and recreational facilities.

The commission members believe attractive parks and recreation facilities are one of the main reasons people move to and stay in Westport. With 200-plus acres of open spaces and parks — many of them near the water and all public — we offer a unique set of resources to the community.

However, much of our community is not aware that the Parks and Recreation Department's operating budget is almost entirely funded by user and permit fees. This means that most of the cost of maintaining 15 parks, three beaches, four tennis facilities with 24 courts, a world-class public golf club, two marinas, a swimming pool complex, 12 athletic fields and 100-plus recreational programs are not paid for by taxes but by fees.

For example, last fiscal year, 93 percent of the Parks and Recreation operating budget was funded by fees. This means that our beach passes and hand emblems are paying for our parks and athletic field maintenance.

This is a significant change from previous years, when the town subsidized at least 15 percent of the operating budget, and vastly different from other towns in Fairfield County that fund their parks and recreation facilities through local taxes. Other towns use fees to pay for capital improvements rather than operating expenses.

And even though our fees are generating enough revenue to pay for 93 percent of the operating expenses, because of tightening budgets, we have still have had to reduce services.

The primary reason for this reduction is that the Parks & Recreation revenue flows to the town's general fund. This means that in future years, under a scenario where revenue exceeds expenses, the surplus would not necessarily flow into Parks & Recreation facilities.

This creates an unfortunate situation in which we are unable to establish long-term reinvestment plans for some of the town's most precious assets such as the Longshore Club Park , beaches and marinas. The longer these maintenance investments are delayed, the more costly the repairs may be. Our parks, fields and beaches will begin to deteriorate.

The commission has identified a set of priorities for 2010-11 designed to complement the goals reflected in the Westport 2007 Plan of Conservation and Development. While we believe all these priorities are crucial, we recognize that our ability to implement them will depend on budget dollars, manpower and ability to generate revenue.

We want our priorities and funding strategies to reflect the needs of our community, so we are asking you to review the draft 2010-11 Parks and Recreation Commission Plan document, now online , and provide us with your feedback.

In addition, we would like you to submit your opinion about how we should fund our Parks and Recreation facilities – through fees, taxes, and/or through commercial opportunities such as advertising and sponsorships. And let us know your thoughts on the 93 percent fee-to-cost ratio.

Also, keep in mind that while funding parks and recreation through user fees keeps property taxes lower, those fees, unlike property taxes, are not tax deductible. Fees are fully taxed dollars.

You can provide your input either by attending our next Parks and Recreation Commission meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 8, in Room 209, Town Hall, or by sending an email to us.

This is an important issue: Westport's Parks & Recreation resources play a significant part in enhancing the quality of life for Westport residents of all ages.

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