SALISBURY – A recommendation to increase certain recreation fees will move forward for council consideration after a discussion with department leaders last week.
Last Tuesday, officials with Wicomico County Recreation, Parks and Tourism came before the Wicomico County Council seeking fee increases to certain recreation programs in fiscal year 2022.
Deputy Director Katie Rouse said an increase in minimum wage, as well as COVID-19 regulations on childcare services, had increased costs associated with operating programs.
“As most of you are aware, minimum wage was increased at the beginning of this year to $11.75 an hour. This minimum wage increase is one of the two major factors that we considered when deciding what to set our fee rates at for the upcoming fiscal year,” she said. “In addition to the minimum wage, we have COVID regulations that are put on to us for our childcare programs. We have to meet these regulations to operate the sites, and it affects both the number of people we can accommodate at each site and the required staff members at each site.”
The proposed fee schedule recommended by department staff includes a $5 increase for youth karate and junior golf, a $10-$13 increase for the after-school Kids Klub, and new fees ranging from $15 to $20 for before- and after-care at the Kids Klub program.
“We keep an eye on other camps in our area and in our county and what their prices are when it comes to childcare programs,” said Recreation Superintendent James Simmons. “For the majority, our programs on average were 25% less. The mission for us is to provide that affordable option for folks.”
Councilman Joe Holloway asked if the department had received any federal funding to cover costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Rouse noted the department had received funds for its learning center, but nothing more.
“When we ran the learning center at the Civic Center we did get some CARES Act funding for that,” she said. “But as far as summer camp goes, we have not received anything at this time.”
Councilman John Cannon also questioned if the proposed fee increases would be included in the coming year’s budget deliberations, or if it would be implemented in the current fiscal year.
While the proposed increases for karate and junior golf would take effect in fiscal year 2022, Rouse said other increases would need to be implemented in the budget process.
“Right now, the summer camps straddle the fiscal year, so registration is open for those now,” Rouse replied. “So we are currently collecting fees at the increased rate. If the fees were not approved, our plan would be to refund the difference back to the people who already registered for the camps.”
Holloway asked, “If you were planning on charging these increased fees, why didn’t it come to the council earlier? … Why didn’t it come to us before you started doing that?”
Rouse noted the department was unsure about hosting summer programs until recently, when it received guidance and regulations. She said officials wanted to provide a service giving parents childcare options ahead of the summer season.
“With the COVID regulations, it all happened really fast,” she said.
Director Steve Miller agreed, noting the department consulted with the finance office to implement fee increases before they were approved.
“The real challenge with this case is a bulk of the programs are in fiscal year 2022,” he said. “It’s a tricky thing because we are registering now for the next fiscal year. In an ideal world, this would have been done in the winter … With COVID most things have been uncertain, so we didn’t know to what extent the requirements would be for staffing and how that impacts what we have to charge.”
Councilwoman Nicole Acle, however, applauded the department’s decision.
“Parents are scrambling right now, and desperate to try and find childcare for now and for the summer,” she said. “I see the urgency in putting this together.”
“Desperate times take desperate measures,” he said. “I’m so glad you put aside red tape, just this one time, to make it happen. It’s unpredictable. Something had to be done, and you did it.”
A bill to amend the department’s program fees will go before the council for consideration next month.