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Recreation Fees and the Financial Town Referendum

Even before voters approved the 0.9% budget by a large margin at this year’s financial town referendum (FTR) on May 16, advocates for the other side were blaming proposed recreation fees on it.  Neither taxpayers nor the families at whom the fees are targeted should fall for the political spin.

At a Budget Committee meeting on March 12, well before any budgets were actually submitted, Town Administrator Matthew Wojcik gave the real motivation for the fees — to make the town’s recreation activities self sustaining.

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At a Town Council meeting on April 13, the chairwoman of the Recreation Committee, Susan Gill, said she’d begun thinking about the fees last year, with the idea that they would apply to anybody who used the fields.

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A look through the Recreation Committee’s meeting agendas and minutes confirms the timeline.

Watching both the Budget Committee meeting and the Town Council meeting, one gets the impression that the idea of crafting the field use fees in a way that narrowed it to the point that it would be a large fee imposed on only the relatively small group of children who play “competitive” traveling soccer came from the town administrator.  Indeed, Recreation Coordinator Keith Cory told the Town Council that he had originally envisioned a per-child fee probably amounting to $5 per child per season.

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When it comes to the large increase in fees for the town’s summer recreation program, the idea was not controversial in either the Budget Committee or the Town Council.  The only member of the Council who voted against the increase was Joseph Sousa, and before member Brett Pelletier made the motion to impose the fees, he asked whether there was “broad consensus.”  Apparently, there was.

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Whether fees are a good idea is a question worth public discussion.  In general, if user fees are exchanged for lower taxes — rather than simply a way for the town government to increase its spending money after the taxpayers are maxed out — they can be a more direct and fair way of accomplishing our shared goals, especially if the money is put into restricted accounts that can only be used for the intended purpose.

The public discussion is crucial, though, and for people to have a full and fair sense of the debate, they must be presented with an accurate accounting of the history and intention with which the fees are presented.

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Justin Katz

Justin Katz, Vice President of the Tiverton Town Council, is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. justin@justinkatz.com (401) 835-7156.

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