When Westminster’s Mayor and Common Council directed staff to write fitness center services out of next year’s budget during a budget workshop Monday evening, it drew a strong response.
The fitness center services, which are part of the Family Fitness Center on Longwell Avenue, serves about 1,000 primary clients each year, but has run at a deficit for years and is in need of repairs, according to information presented during the meeting.
The council received feedback in the form of public email before the start of the meeting. Common themes included a feeling of “devastation” of the loss of the community built there. Many said the fitness center felt like a family. Others said is one of few centers in Carroll that offers childcare along with fitness services and is lower in price than other offerings. Some asked why members hadn’t been asked whether they would pay more for services or conduct fundraisers in order to keep the fitness center running. The video of the meeting had received more than 550 comments on Facebook, where it was posted live, by the next morning.
By 6:30 p.m. the next day, a change.org petition had accumulated more than 860 signatures in a matter of hours.
Organizers wrote in the text of the petition, “Please help us to show Westminster City officials just how much this place means to our community. That it’s more than “just a gym” or a deficit in their budget. Our members are committed to a monthly membership increase and/or yearly maintenance fees to keep our gym home.” They proposed that members would be willing to stay members with a monthly increase in fees to cut down on the deficit.
The record remains open for the public to comment by emailing comments or testimony to the city clerk’s office at email@example.com.
The Westminster Longwell Family Recreation Center is also known as the Old Westminster Armory. It was completed in 1918 and was used for military purposes including celebrations for soldiers returning from World War II until the 1980s when the National Guard moved to a new building. The city leased the building from that time until they purchased it in the early 1990s.
The fitness center in the basement of the building, which also houses a basketball court on the first floor, is currently shut to the public under state restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The building would likely not sit empty. Other services, such as summer camps and rental of the main floor facility, are expected to continue.
During the meeting, the council reached consensus to direct staff to craft the closure of the fitness center into the financial year 2021 budget. Mayor Joe Dominick proposed that the fitness center be closed and the funds be redirected with about $24,000 going toward the promotion of the Westminster Fiber Network and creating more revenue to shore up costs from that project. The other saved revenue would be put to the compensation of city employees, which the city has been trying to bring up to speed in phases since a compensation and classification study was completed in 2017.
Councilman Kevin Dayhoff said: “There is not strong support with me at all. I would characterize my viewpoint at this time as, ‘It’s a business decision and I need to go along with it kicking and screaming.' I just don’t know of an alternative at this point in time.”
Council President Gregory Pecoraro clarified after the meeting that, “These work sessions usually serve to give city staff a sense of the council’s views on major issues to guide them in preparing the final draft of the budget. In this case, I expect that means that the moneys allocated to the fitness center would be reprogrammed into the other line items. The vote would then be on the budget as a whole. So, I don’t expect there to be an actual vote on the fitness center as a standalone issue.”
The Common Council is set to vote on the entire FY21 budget at its Monday, May 11 meeting, to be held virtually and streamed live on the “Westminster, Maryland” Facebook page.
One point of frustration for many who responded was a feeling that they hadn’t been given prior notice about the discussion. Several part-time employees said they learned that the closure might happen an hour or two before the Monday meeting.
“The subject matter of the meeting has been advertised since last week," Dominick wrote to the Times in response to a question about the schedule notice. "My proposal on in how to handle the fitness center’s operating deficit was made at the meeting. I had been discussing it in one-on-one conversations with members of the Council and staff for the couple of days prior to the work session.”
Pecoraro wrote in a response: "In the Finance Committee we had agreed that the Fitness Center operating deficit should be a discussion item for the workshops, and the larger issue of the need for repairs for the Old Armory Building. I can’t speak for anyone else on this, but, as we entered the budget discussions, I had no expectation that we would be having a serious discussion about closure.
“Certainly there was adequate notice of the meetings, although neither the meeting notice or the agenda mentioned closure of the fitness center. The agenda packet did include the PowerPoint slides highlighting the operating deficit at the Fitness Center as a discussion topic,” he added. “As the Mayor mentioned during the meeting, he shared the proposal in a number of one-on-one conversations over the preceding few days. So, the issue developed late and rapidly.”
Andrea Crouse, a fitness center employee since October, but a 10-year member before that, said she worked to gather as many responses from the fitness center community as she could to participate in the discussion. She learned about it from a supervisor about an hour before Monday’s meeting, she said. In an interview with the Times she said that even before the meeting, there was a message that the decision had already been made and there was nothing people could do about it.
She said she was appalled at the choice to use the recovered funds to increase city employee salaries without acknowledging that it would mean firing other city employees. She also said she didn’t understand how the city could be considering major capitol expenses in upgrading the city pool, a service that is only open for a few months out of the year. An audit found that the pool is in need of repairs, and the city is considering proposals that range from basic repairs to the addition of amenities like a splash pad.
The city budget also includes more renovations to the former bank at 45 West Main Street into city administrative offices and she questioned how some of the expenses on that project are more beneficial to city residents than the operation of the fitness center.
She said that the gym at the center meant more to her than just a gym. It was where her children made friends.
“It is a community, it is a family,” she said. “That’s where we lift each other up.”
According to the information presented by city staff, there are about 1,600 members total and about 1,000 primary members when including memberships that include multiple people.
Councilman Tony Chiavacci said the night’s meeting meant making some challenging decisions.
“Every choice that we make comes down to directing our dollars in the best way that we possibly can. And some of those choices are always incredibly difficult," he said.
According to a presentation by City Administrator Barbara Matthews on the budget, the main revenue source for the fitness center is the membership fees, and “virtually all of the costs" of running the fitness center are personnel-related. Some staff are part-time and some are full-time.
The fitness center has been operating at a deficit of more than $200,000 per year since 2014, according to data shared in the presentation. As of April 1, 2020, the center had built up a $115,412 deficit for the current financial year. The anticipated deficit in the FY21 budget is $209,437.
In addition, the center needs repairs in one of its shower rooms and cardio equipment replacements if it were to continue running. According to the current proposed budget, those are predicted to cost about $90,000 combined. The shower room repairs alone would be about $75,000.
In the meeting, Pecoraro and Dayhoff both directed staff to leave the building repair money in the budget.
In discussing his proposal, Dominick said, his biggest problem was an “ethical reason” that about 75% of gym members are not city residents. “So we have a situation where city taxes, that are only paid by property owners in the city and city residents, [are] subsidizing a service that we’re losing money on, that’s largely serving people that are not city tax payers.”
He acknowledged that the choice is not black and white because “there are a lot of competing needs.”
Councilman Benjamin Yingling agreed and said fiscally it is the right decision to invest in employees who provide public safety and water and sewer services.
Recreation and Parks Director Abby Gruber shared later that the break down is about 40% city residents and 60% nonresidents.
Crouse said she didn’t understand how it was unethical to bring nonresidents into the city where they will likely patronize businesses and bring friends and family into the city for special events.
She wrote in an email to the Times, “I am a non-city resident myself, living thirteen houses away from the city line on Liberty Street. I am mere feet away from living there. I paid a higher membership fee as a non-resident prior to being employed at the Fitness Center as of this past October. My family was strongly considering moving from this area, but chose not to because of the community we have built and belong to at the Fitness Center. I pay for City Water and Sewer, and pay taxes as an employee. We constantly support and patronize city events and frequently use businesses in the city. This closure will likely see us leaving the area.”
Councilwoman Ann Thomas Gilbert asked the Recreation and Parks Department to explore the possibility to maintain fitness classes as a revenue source.
Dayhoff asked how much they would have to raise fees to keep the center open without a deficit. And if they raised fees, how many members would they lose?
Gruber said earlier in the year staff had considered adding an annual maintenance fee. Market research showed that could be around $40 from each of the 1,000 primary members to add $40,000 in revenue, she said. Other research showed the center could raise the monthly membership rate about $5 per membership category per month to add about $60,000 revenue annually.
Gabrielle Collins, a part-time instructor, said she also learned about the possible closure a few hours before the meeting and began reaching out to as many people as she knew to watch and participate through Facebook.
“The fact that that they would blindside people, it’s crazy to me,” she said. She wished the city would have brought up the problem of the deficit to members and employees so they could work to find a solution like membership fee increases and fundraisers.
For her, the welcoming atmosphere of the fitness center, where a 70-year-old might be working out next to a pregnant woman, stood out from other places she has taught.
“I tried to work with each individual based on their needs and make sure they were able to be their best version of themselves,” she said. Tuesday morning, she shared pictures from the gym to her Facebook page so others could see, “We’re not a deficit."
“Important buildings and places like this should not just disappear in a meeting,” she said.
Maggie Payne, a part-time benefited employee, said she also heard about the closure discussion Monday, about two hours before the meeting began.
“I have been going there since I was 5," she wrote in an email. “Two weeks ago I became a mom to a baby boy. I couldn’t wait to return back to work and for my son to meet all the people who have helped me succeed and get to where I am now. This gym and the people are my family and I don’t want to lose that.”
Matthews said next steps for city staff would be to consult with Recreation and Parks about how many employees they would need to retain for administrative support for the city’s special events. Then they would discuss employee compensation with the Personnel Committee and the consulting firm helping them put the pay and benefit changes in place.