Almanac

Viewpoint - May 7, 2014

Editorial: Council takes another look at nonresident rec fees

The Menlo Park City Council passed a package of fee increases for some of the city's community programs on April 29. But one item that sparked some discussion — the staff's recommendation that the 35 percent surcharge applied to nonresidents remain in effect — will get another airing this week after Mayor Ray Mueller decided residents needed an opportunity to comment.

The nonresident fees, which apply to families who live in the Menlo Park zip code but don't reside within city limits, are becoming a bone of contention. Those living within the "unincorporated county" area are asking whether the surcharge, as well as delayed enrollment, is hurting both families who can't afford and programs that may see fewer participants as a result.

The council briefly talked about the surcharge before voting 5-0 to pass the fee increases. Two "unincorporated" community members cried foul, since they were told by the staff that the surcharge would not discussed that night, which suggested that there was no need to appear to speak on the issue at the meeting. Mayor Mueller wisely decided a few days later to put the surcharge back on the council's agenda this week to make sure the public had a chance to comment.

We were surprised that the staff did not encourage an open, thorough discussion. Even though the Parks and Recreation Commission will take up the surcharge this fall, the council as well as the community should be allowed to provide input that could guide the commission's decision.

At bottom, the city collects substantial revenue from the surcharge — $400,000 a year. It's a big income-generator and the point that city residents pay taxes to support the recreation programs is well taken.

But what strikes us as unfair is the registration procedure for nonresidents. City residents get to sign up a week earlier; nonresidents can only join if space then remains, which is not always the case for popular classes like gymnastics.

Councilman Peter Ohtaki agreed last week that there are valid arguments in favor of the surcharge. But he also asked if there was a way to study changing the registration delay for nonresidents so that families who live in unincorporated Menlo Park could register sooner, "but still pay the higher fee."

The answer from staff said it is "industry practice" to give residents priority, but that more discussion will take place at the Parks and Recreation Commission hearing.

Councilman Rich Cline asked if it's fair to pay that much more if you only live two blocks outside the city. He suggested the city provide an analysis of the rationale for that decision for the benefit of the public's understanding.

Unless there are legal obstacles, we believe the city should at least stop giving residents priority over unincorporated Menlo Park residents when registering for city classes. The surcharge should remain, but why not give these families, who might live within walking distance of city limits, and who would like to see their children be able to attend the same recreation classes as their school classmates, a break? It's the right thing to do and wouldn't cost the city a dime.

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