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Fee Hikes at City Fitness Centers Drove Away Members, Failed to Raise Cash

By Victoria Bekiempis | September 12, 2013 2:42pm
 A tennis court at Williamsburg's McCarren Park is slated to get a heated bubble for cold-weather play.
A tennis court at Williamsburg's McCarren Park is slated to get a heated bubble for cold-weather play.
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DNAinfo/Meredith Hoffman

UPPER EAST SIDE — Mayor Michael Bloomberg's fee increases at city-owned public tennis courts, recreation centers and ball fields drove away members at an alarming rate — and brought in a fraction of the overall projected revenue, independent monitors found.

The city's rec center memberships plunged 52 percent in the two years since the city implemented higher fees, while seasonal adult tennis permits tumbled 43 percent since the new prices went into effect in 2011, the New York City Independent Budget Office found in a report released Thursday.

Analysts also found the city's fee hike raised just "a fraction of what had been expected" in terms of revenue — $1.1 million rather than the projected $6.3 million — as members fled.

"The sharp drop-off in parks usage runs counter to the Bloomberg Administration’s anti-obesity and other health policy initiatives," the IBO wrote.

The Parks Department countered that the fees allowed the centers to provide better services, and that membership drop-off had been exaggerated by the IBO.

"Many people renewed their recreation center memberships in the months right before the new fee took effect — giving the impression of a large decline," Department spokesman Philip Abramson wrote in an e-mail to DNAinfo.com New York.

Nonetheless, Abramson said the agency was compelled to act.

"While the decline is not as great as the IBO purports, it still led us to reevaluate our fee structure. Two months ago, we added a new low-fee membership category of $25 for young adults," he said. 

"We are also allowing patrons and former patrons who held Senior Citizen Memberships before the category was reclassified with a second opportunity to be grandfathered into Senior membership and rejoin at the rate of $25 per year."

This did little to appease public space proponents such as New Yorkers for Parks — which said that the report confirms its prior fears about rate hikes.

“The Mayor’s own 2012 management report — and now the IBO’s analysis — confirm that our early warnings about the impact of increasing recreation fees were warranted: permits and memberships have plummeted," Holly Leicht, New Yorkers for Parks executive director, wrote in an e-mail to DNAinfo.com New York. 

"We’re glad that the Parks Department tweaked fees this year in response to these outcomes, but it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish to price thousands of New Yorkers out of the city’s rec centers and off its tennis courts, especially for such minimal fiscal benefit to the City.”

The IBO's report  — and subsequent controversy — comes amid continued criticism of the administration's management of public spaces, especially recreational areas.

Many have faulted the city's profit-mindedness with regard to park management, including the decision to turn Upper East Side ballfields into paid tennis courts and a tennis academy on Randall's Island that was shot down over fears it would be too expensive for locals.

The city's rec centers seem to have taken the biggest hit during this time.

Annual paid membership fell 51.9 percent — from some 96,000 memberships in 2011, to some 46,000 in 2012, according to the report.

The Department of Parks and Recreation had hoped for $8.8 million in revenue from rec centers and related fees in 2012 — but collected only $4.75 million in 2010, $4.70 million in 2011, and $4.76 million in 2012, the report stated.

With tennis, the city posted a $220,00 increase in revenue from 2010 to  2011 — "less than one-fifth of the projected gain of $1.2 million from the higher permit fees," the IBO said.

The situation was worse in 2012, when "the city collected $2.1 million, falling about $1.3 million short of the projected increase," the report added.

Though fewer ballfield permits were also sold after the fee increase, the city did meet its goal with those amenities, raising an additional $180,000 in 2011 and $755,000 in 2012 — $35,000 more than they had hoped for.