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Proposal to save Westminster’s Family Fitness Center includes rare rate increase, staff cuts

To help Westminster’s Family Fitness Center become budget neutral, the city’s Recreation and Parks Committee considered proposals to increase rates and fees for members, cut staffing, and reduce open hours during off-peak times.

Funding for the center was on the chopping block this budget season before public outcry pushed the city to look at other options.

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Recreation and Parks Department staff presented their recommendations to the committee Tuesday, and the committee agreed to move them forward to the Finance Committee. After that committee reviews the proposals, city staff will incorporate the changes into the overall city budget. The Common Council, which is scheduled to meet June 8 at 7 p.m., must vote to approve a city budget by June 15.

The Recreation and Parks Department staff had been tasked after a May 11 budget work session with quickly finding ways to make up more than $200,000 in predicted deficit from the center. According to financial statements from the city, the center’s deficit has been between $200,000 and $300,000 per year since 2014.

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The city considered closing the fitness center to save costs, but after a passionate public response, Councilmember Tony Chiavacci proposed keeping the center open but taking away the funds the city would have used to subsidize the deficit in fiscal year 2021, moving them elsewhere in the budget. It was then up to Recreation and Parks staff to find a way to make up those funds.

This question is among those still unresolved in the overall city budget.

Abby Gruber, director of Recreation and Parks, presented a report on the department’s three-pronged plan for the center at the May 26 committee meeting.

One action would be reductions in full-time benefited staff and temporary staff. These savings in salaries and benefits would mean about $169,000 less in expenses in the upcoming year. With those cuts, the center would be looking at reducing operating hours and the number of group fitness classes held per week, once the center reopens. These reductions would be modest, according to the report.

Fitness classes would go from about 50 per week to about 40. The hours the center would be open and the hours it would have child-care services were chosen based on member usage. The department would cut hours when usage is lowest, Gruber said.

The third recommended step is to increase monthly membership rates and add an annual maintenance fee. This was one of the measures suggested by members of the public who signed a petition to keep the Family Fitness Center open.

For all members of the center, there would be a $40 annual fee for equipment maintenance. Currently there is not an annual fee for this.

Monthly fees for Westminster residents would be $50 per month for families, or $65 with child care, and $25 for individuals. For non-city residents, who make up the majority of members, those rates would be an additional $5 per month. Discount rates would be available for youth and students. Gruber said the rate changes were based on market research done in November.

Child care would also be able to be purchased separately as an add-on.

The department predicted these changes could add about $93,000 in revenue. This assumed 20% of members would leave the gym due to the increased rates or other factors.

If all were to go exactly as predicted for FY21, the center would come in a hair over neutral, with expenditures at $292,349 and revenues at $293,208, according to the report.

The meeting can be viewed on the “Westminster, Maryland” Facebook page. The Finance Committee will review the plan at its Friday, May 29 meeting, which will start at 8 a.m. and can also be viewed on Facebook.

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In discussion, the committee’s chair, Councilman Kevin Dayhoff, said he believed this would be the first time the Family Fitness Center raised rates since it was established in 1994.

Mayor Joe Dominick, who serves on each of the city’s committees, suggested that the difference between rates for residents and nonresidents could be higher. One of his initial concerns about the center was that it was used by more nonresidents who did not contribute to the taxes used to offset the center’s deficit.

Councilwoman Ann Thomas Gilbert commented on the percentage of those predicted to leave the gym. She said it might be higher than normal this year because of those unwilling to return to a gym amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But she hoped that the public attention brought to the Family Fitness Center might cause people to stay or bring in new members.

She said she wanted to see the six-month number for the center to make sure things were moving in a positive direction after changes were made.

Dominick restated from the previous work session that the city would need a two-year trial to get an accurate idea of the numbers.

“Year one can make the finances look disastrous. Or it can make them look really great, and either way, we can’t trust them because it’s going to be a weird year,” he said.

Gilbert also asked if the Recreation and Parks Department was considering outdoor fitness classes while the center remains closed during the pandemic.

Gruber said they had done so before when the center was under renovation or repair. They are looking at possibilities for outdoor, pay-as-you-go classes.

The next meeting of the Mayor and Common Council is scheduled for June 8 at 7 p.m. To submit comments or testimony to the city, email Comments@westgov.com.

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