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How Summer Recreation Fell Apart

The issue of summer recreation fees in Tiverton is a good example of what it means not to put the people of the town first.

From what can be gathered from the Town Council and Budget Committee meetings at which the subject has come up, it appears that Town Administrator Matthew Wojcik suggested to the Recreation Committee that it should seek to become “net zero,” meaning that its programs should pay for themselves, overall.

When it comes to summer recreation, the Recreation Committee decided to develop a whole new program rather than simply finding ways to increase revenue for a long-running one.  From their description at the March 12 Budget Committee meeting, it sounds like the plan was originally to start a new summer camp at the Bulgarmarsh park in addition to the part-time, largely improvised opportunity for children to play with their friends at Pocasset school.

With both ideas on the table, Recreation Coordinator Keith Cory suggested combining the two and utilizing the High School and Ranger School, as well.  The old program would disappear, and the price would go from $75 for the whole summer to $100 per week, or $700 for the summer.

The most striking thing about the discussion at the May 26 Town Council meeting was the revelation that nobody from the town government had contacted the families that had participated in the program previously.  Consequently, an activity that typically has the participation of sixty or so children had 12 children register for the upcoming summer at the time of the meeting.  Parents in the audience who had registered their children were still not clear about what, specifically, the program was going to offer.

The impression that the discussion gave was that, while the town did research how much summer-camp programs usually cost, officials made no attempt to find out whether there was any actual interest in a new one in Tiverton.  Having made the decision, they do not appear to have really marketed the new idea or to explain it.

In an attempt to salvage the program, council members voted on two different rates, trying to find a lower price on which they could agree and hoping that participation would increase, but neither suggestion received enough votes.  (As a parliamentary matter, that leaves the larger fee in place.)  Councilman Jay Lambert objected to charging parents any fees at all, while Councilman David Perry repeatedly suggested that the town should just cancel the camp altogether.

Based on numbers that Recreation Committee Chairwoman Susan Gill mentioned during the meeting — with 60 children costing the town $6,000 — it appears that simply raising the fee for the less-elaborate program from $75 for the summer to $100 for the whole summer would have made it self-sustaining.  If the Recreation Committee wanted to experiment with a small summer camp on the side, at least it would have been additional, and it could have been contingent upon a certain number of registrations.

The “brilliant idea,” as Gill called it, to combine the programs was actually a big mistake.  And it’s a mistake that might have been avoided if the first question had been:  What do the families who use this program really want, and how can we make that happen?  Instead, it appears to have been:  What program can we, as part of the town government, invent that we think would be a good idea?

Private businesses must ask the first question, because if they’re wrong, the people involved could lose their livelihoods and their savings.  With government, the people making decisions face no such consequences.  The money involved is not even their own, for the most part, so it’s all too easy for them to move forward with speculative experiments that leave taxpayers on the hook and residents with fewer services if they fail.

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Justin Katz

Justin Katz 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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