Not surprisingly, the D.C. Recreation Department proposal setting fees for city swimming pools, playing fields, tennis courts and other recreational facilities -- which have been free since the department was established nearly 40 years ago -- has many city residents steaming.
"If enough of us get together," fumed Dorothy Greene, vice-president of the Barry Farms Tenant Association in Southeast, "I'm sure we can knock that down. Suppose you can't afford to pay for your children to use the swimming pool? Then what? We'll be getting signatures on petitions to break the proposal. This is really ridiculous. Is our swimming pool just going to sit over there with children hanging around looking at it behind the fence?
Arthur Meigs, president of the Federation of Civic Associations, said the citywide organization passed a resolution last week opposing the proposal and requesting that the financially strapped city explore other cost-saving alternatives. The resolution will be sent to Mayor Marion Barry and the City Council.
Proposed fees include a $100 family pass for swimming pools, up to $3.50 an hour for tennis court time, $15 an hour to rent meeting rooms, 50 cents for rental chairs at theatrical performances, and $5 an hour for use of soccer, football, softball and rugby "small" playing fields. Non-resident fees would be higher. Recreation director William H. Rumsey noted that provisions will be made for hardship cases.
"Charging user fees is going to affect the people out here the worst," said Willie Toney, a spokesman for Southeast Neighborhood House. "We're not going to sit back and let this happen to us, I can assure you. Quite a few people in the community will definitely let their opinions be known once they realize what the deal really is. We've got more young people over here than in any area of the city."
According to the Recreation Department, there is no demographic data to confirm the income level of the people who most frequently use city recreational facilities. "(But) it is logical that the Recreation Departmentis depended on more heavily by low-income residents who are most heavily affected by unemployment and who have few other alternatives to turn to," says Mary McKey, assistant to Rumsey. It was Rumsey who submitted the user-fee proposal to the City Council at its request early this month.
The Rev. David Eaton, senior minister of the All Souls Unitarian Church at 16th and Harvard streets NW, said, "I don't think the fact of what the Recreation Department proposes to do has sunk in yet.But, if the public hearings are publicized well enough, quite a few people will come to them. I think this user fee proposal is the result of a lack of a comprehensive, fiscal-development plan. It's similar to other actions by the government to bail the city out of its budget crisis."
Eaton, whose church is a meeting place for D.C. citizen groups who use the city's recreational facilities, said, "We need a plan that will call for sacrifices which would be equal across the board. There certainly has not been equity in the teacher cutbacks and the gasoline tax and there won't be equity in the user fees, where a small group of people suffer the brunt of a hastily conceived, last-resort solution to a very difficult economic problem."
Kimi Gray, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in far Northeast said she understood the motivation, but totally disagrees with the plan. "The mayor and the City Council want to help the people get out of this budget crisis, but I can't believe they want to strangle us to death. With ideas like the one Rumsey has made, they're strangling us."
Gray said there was an unanimous vote at a recent ANC meeting to "attend the public hearings in strong numbers and to come with written recommendations and let Rumsey know exactly how we feel." No dates have been set for the public hearings.
Calvin Rolark, head of the United Black Fund and president of the Washington Highlands Civic Association in Southeast, said the proposed plan has people stirred up. "People hope that one of the reasons (the user fee) was proposed was because there are a number of suburbanites and others who do not live in the District who are coming into the city to use our recreational facilities. We don't have the commuter tax, so, to me, the user fee is a good move -- as long as those citizens who are economically deprived are protected."
Rolark, who represents an area with a high concentration of youths from low-income families, said, "For the thousands of youngsters in D.C. who are still denied employment, recreation is the only means for them to contain themselves, and use their energies in some constructive manner.
"Increased taxes may be the best solution to take care of these facilities. That way the brunt will fall on the haves and not the have-nots, who are being penalized enough right now."
The Recreation Department was prepared for the angry onslaught. "This is just a rough proposal," McKey said, "which is way far from the point where we'll submit the proposal to the ANCs. The proposal is (on) the bottom rung of the ladder now and it must go through a number of offices before it will be released to the ANCs. At the very earliest, if we do charge fees, they will go into effect during the summer of 1982.
She said the thrust of the proposal is to extract revenue from non-resident usage. "Many facilities are used by nonresidents. The City Council is concerned about that and feels that the nonresidents should help pay for the maintenance of the facilities."
Rumsey, in his memo to D.C. Finance and Revenue Director Carolyn Smith outlining the proposal, emphasized that he will remain flexible and "completely open to suggestions and revisions" in the public hearings.
"People at our level might not be aware of some concerns they have out in the community," he said, "but at the public hearings you get right down to where the rubber meets the road."