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(SUN POST FILE PHOTO BY KEVIN MILLER)

A Rec on the Go van sits outside the Brooklyn Park Community Activity Center during the 2018 Tater Daze festival. Rec on the Go provides free recreation programming to youth at parks and apartment community during the summer months. Brooklyn Park is considering implementing a pilot recreation fee assistance program with tiered pricing for participants of all ages.

The Brooklyn Park City Council told city staff in the recreation and parks department to look into implementing a new fee assistance pilot program June 7.

Through the program, age and income restrictions on fee assistance would change, with a larger age pool of residents eligible to receive reduced program fees. The program would also reduce the burden of proof for applicants to receive fee assistance.

“I’m really excited about some of the changes we’re talking about here because that’s exactly what we need,” said Councilmember Susan Pha.

The city currently uses a fee assistance model with scholarships. Youth age 17 and under are eligible for up to $400 worth of scholarships. These scholarships can come through the form of reduced program fees.

The 2021 budget has $44,000 set aside for recreation scholarships.

In order to qualify for fee assistance, applicants must present documentation in person at the Community Activity Center verifying their income and household size each time they register for a program. A 1040 Tax Form is typically required to prove financial need.

The city is considering doing away with the scholarship program and replacing it with a model that allows all residents to access tiered pricing without having to provide proof of income eligibility.

That is, in the new pilot program, families could request and receive fee assistance online while registering for classes by self-reporting their income and household size. Participants would verify online that their income statement was truthful and accurate to qualify.

Brooklyn Park residents of all ages, rather than only children, would be eligible for fee assistance in the new program. According to city staff, there has been some appetite for assistance among seniors and those developmental disabilities, among other adults, to access recreation scholarships.

City staff believe that cost is one of the largest barriers blocking access to recreation programming, said Brad Tullberg, parks and recreation facilities manager.

The department would implement a tiered pricing system for all programs and classes, with the exception of one-time-use fees at facilities and senior fitness classes that are reimbursed by Silver Sneakers.

Families and individuals would not be capped for annual participation in the tiered pricing system.

The Minnesota Department of Education School Nutrition Programs Household Income Guidelines would be used to determine pricing tier qualifications.

Tiered pricing already exists for the city’s summer camp and the nature preschool programs. The pilot is expected to go into effect in January 2022.

It’s difficult to project the participation and financial impact of the pilot program at this time, Tullberg said.

However, assuming there is a reduction in revenue generation through program fees, the council may need to increase the property tax levy to offset those losses.

Overall, Tullberg said the reduction in revenue is estimated between $60,000 and $70,000 in the first year.

“There’s a lot to like about what staff’s working on here,” said Jay Stroebel, city manager, “but we need to also consider the broader, long-term budget impacts of this relative to where we’re going to be with a whole bunch of other variables this fall and early winter.”

Adding to cost complications are a regional increase in wages for seasonal staff, as well as rising costs for the use of outside facilities such as swimming pools, dance studios and youth sports fields.

The council was supportive of the concept.

Tax forms do not always represent someone’s financial situation, as they can lose their job or get divorced and not have that information reflected on the prior year’s tax forms, Councilmember Lisa Jacobson said.

“If I’m coming to you and I’m telling you I need help in order for my child to participate, that takes a lot to do that in the first place,” she said. “I was that mom and it’s not easy to admit that, and so I am all for doing whatever it takes to assist those who need it.”

Councilmember Wynfred Russell concurred, saying that tax forms are a poor system for confirming income levels.

Councilmember Terry Parks said he was concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the parks and recreation department’s budget.

“I’m absolutely in support of anything that invests in youth,” Parks said.

Pha said that some residents need a no-cost option to be able to participate in recreation programs.

She said that growing up, her parents couldn’t afford to pay for sports programs, and that she was embarrassed when she was branded as lower-income in the lunch line.

“The fact that you have to show proof that you can’t afford something or you have to show up in person and prove that, or that you have to have a label on you that says I can’t afford it, it’s just ridiculous,” she said.

Councilmember Boyd Morson questioned the use of the existing state education system to measure income needs rather than something based specifically on the city’s income levels.

Mayor Pro Tem Tonja West Hafner said that she supports the city’s youth work. The state’s poverty line may be a better indicator of resident need for financial assistance than the education system’s measurement, she said.

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