Claremont City Council set to raise rates, fees at community center

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 05-08-2023 4:43 PM

CLAREMONT — The City Council is poised to approve increases in membership fees and other rates for the community center, with the expectation that the additional revenue will make a dent in the city-owned center’s annual operating deficit.

The council, which is set to vote on the rate increases on Wednesday, reviewed a consultant’s recommendations at its April 26 meeting. In the process, the council tentatively approved the increases even higher the recommended.

The price hikes are significant, but they are also the first increases in a decade.

For example, the annual rate for resident family-of-four memberships will increase 42%, from the current $350 to $500.

That rate only applies if the full amount is paid in advance. Those who pay monthly with a 12-month commitment will be charged $540. Without the one-year commitment, the family membership is $69 a month, or $828 a year.

The center will end three-month membership plans under the new schedule.

The rate increases should help reduce the tax subsidy so the center moves toward self-sufficiency, Assistant Mayor Deb Matteau said.

Matteau said she is not worried that higher fees will lead to membership cancellations and said rates could go even higher.

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“I think we need to look at ways to reduce the cost to taxpayers who don’t use it,” Matteau said. “I think it needs to be more self-sufficient. There is plenty of room to grow the fees. I think we should look again next year and bump it up.”

Day passes, annual youth passes and adult passes also are increasing, but by less than the family rates.

The annual youth pass will go from $130 to $165, a 27% increase. There are currently 45 active youth-pass holders.

Resident day passes will double to $10, and nonresident day passes will be $15, up from $7.

Matteau also strongly supported, and the council agreed, with raising rates for nonresidents.

“I would prefer $700 (up from $475) and the reason being is that nonresidents, in my opinion, should not be subsidized by the taxpayers of Claremont at all,” Matteau said. “Seven hundred dollars is a fair price for a family of four.”

Annual memberships for nonresident families in monthly installments will be $780 with a 12-month commitment, and $948 with no commitment.

Rates have essentially stayed the same since the center opened in March 2013. In the months prior to the opening, the council at the time had several rate discussions. It rejected a proposal for rates that were more in line with other facilities, concluding most residents would not be able to afford them. The council instead decided on a rate structure it projected would result in an annual deficit of no more than $500,000, which was equal to the deficit of the Parks and Recreation Department at the time, according to council minutes of November 2012.

Initially, membership steadily rose to exceed 5,000 before it began dropping. When COVID hit in 2020 and the center closed, membership further declined.

The latest figures from the city show about 1,300 members.

It’s not clear if the new rates will go into effect immediately for all members or whether they’ll be implemented gradually as annual memberships turn over.

Lawrence said it was his understanding the new rates would apply to all members July 1.

Mayor Dale Girard was not so sure.

“I would think if you have a 12-month membership, it is good until it expires,” Girard said.

If someone is renewed at the old rate in June, he said, it should be honored for the 12 months.

Richard Synnott, the consultant with Active Entities in Massachusetts, appeared via Zoom at the April 26 meeting and spoke in support of the council’s decision to raise rates more than he recommended.

“I think you are doing a phenomenal job,” Synnott said. “I think you are making bold decisions and they will have an impact.”

Synnott told the council the higher rates for both membership and room rentals would increase the center’s net operating income by $300,000.

When calculating new rates, Synnott said he looked at three facilities in the area, including the Edgar May Center in Springfield, Vt., and the privately owned Upper Valley Aquatic Center in Hartford.

“You guys are virtually a third,” he said. “I think there is room to go up.”

When asked whether he thought the community center would lose members with the higher rates, Synnott referenced a facility in Iowa that saw an 8% increase and did not lose members.

“I don’t think the rate structure is going to have a significant impact for residents,” he said. “There have been no raises in a long time. It is time to make it happen.”

Last week, Synnott said in a phone interview that in his experience, COVID really hit recreational facilities hard, with membership declines of as much as 50%. Nationally, about a third of such facilities went out of business. Synnott’s report is expected to include other recommendations for programming at the community center.

“There are a lot of programming opportunities and ways to create new revenue streams (at the community center),” Synnott said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, residents can comment on the proposed rate structure during a public hearing. The meeting is scheduled to take place at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.

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