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Our View: Right or wrong, decision on Westminster fitness center not handled well

It makes little sense to continue with an undertaking that loses significant money year after year. So we understand why the City of Westminster would want to look at closing the Westminster Family Fitness Center.

Nothing is yet final, but the decision by the mayor and council to write fitness center services out of next year’s budget, at a city budget workshop on Monday, without prior notice, displayed a lack of regard for the center’s members and workers, not to mention transparency in government.

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Mayor Joe Dominick proposed that the fitness center be closed and the funds be redirected toward the promotion of the Westminster Fiber Network and to the compensation of city employees. He told us he had only begun to have one-on-one conversations regarding closing the fitness center with members of the council and staff in the “couple of days prior to the work session.”

Council President Gregory Pecoraro concurred, telling us, “As we entered the budget discussions, I had no expectation that we would be having a serious discussion about closure," and “the issue developed late and rapidly.”

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That this discussion and decision just came out of the blue is possible. But it seems hard to imagine it hadn’t been considered, at least by some, for quite a bit longer given that 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.

Pecoraro and Dominick both said adequate notice of the meetings regarding the budget was given to the public, but Pecoraro conceded, “neither the meeting notice or the agenda mentioned closure of the fitness center.” (He noted that the agenda packet included slides highlighting the operating deficit at the Fitness Center as a discussion topic.)

Staffers, fitness center members and citizens at large expressed their disagreement with the decision and disappointment at the lack of notice via messages to the city, to the Times and via social media. A change.org petition to keep the center open garnered nearly 1,000 signatures in a few hours.

“The fact that that they would blindside people, it’s crazy to me,” Gabrielle Collins, a part-time instructor, told us.

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Many noted the center is “more than just a gym" and suggested that intermediate steps could’ve been taken, such as raising membership fees or doing fundraisers.

Recreation and Parks Director Abby Gruber said earlier in the year staff had considered adding an annual maintenance fee or raising membership fees. A $40 maintenance fee for the 1,000 or so primary members would add some $40,000 in revenue; a $5 monthly fee increase would add some $60,000 in annual revenue.

It’s fair to wonder how many members would leave for a privately owned gym if fees were raised. It’s fair to wonder if the city should be in the fitness center at all. And it’s certainly fair to point out that every governmental body is struggling with budgets right now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Every choice that we make comes down to directing our dollars in the best way that we possibly can," Councilmember Tony Chiavacci said, characterizing those choices as "incredibly difficult.”

It’s possible the city is making the right choice. But it’s clear it was done the wrong way.

The mayor and council should’ve been transparent, beginning discussions regarding the fitness center far earlier in the process and publicizing precisely what would be discussed at budget workshops. They should’ve given voice, and more respect, to the 1,000 primary and 1,600 total members, not to mention staff. That’s a lot of people. For context, it took fewer than 400 votes to win a council seat in 2019.

The record remains open for the public to email comments or testimony to svisocsky@westgov.com. The 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.

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