The Fairfax County Park Authority allows nearly 100 public officials in Northern Virginia to use its golf courses, swimming pools and other recreation facilities free of charge--benefits that could cost a family without connections $1,000 a year or more.
This week, the agency expanded the program to allow officials to bring up to three guests for 18 holes of golf, including free balls and cart rentals at any of seven county-run courses. The bill at the most expensive course would be nearly $200 a visit.
The little-known program has come under fire from low-tax activists, who call the free passes indefensible when park officials are asking for $418,000 in additional user fees from residents. No other neighboring jurisdiction offers free park passes to its elected officials.
"They're supposed to be the citizen stewards of government," said Marcia P. Dykes, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayer Alliance. "Why shouldn't they be paying like everyone else?"
But Fairfax park officials and some supervisors said the passes help them oversee the county's $43 million-a-year parks and recreation system by giving them a chance to experience the facilities firsthand.
"We are the board of directors, and we would like to encourage those who supervise our parks, and who are in charge, to use our parks," said Frank de la Fe, chairman of the park board. "Most directors of corporations and organizations are able to visit the facilities they supervise."
Under the pass program, which officials said has quietly been offered for years, the 22 members of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors and the Fairfax park board get passes that allow them and their immediate relatives to use most park facilities free of charge. These include golf courses, recreation centers, boat rentals and a host of other offerings, ranging from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars each.
Spouses and other family members may use the passes without the elected official present, said Park Authority spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald.
In addition, the 12 members of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority--most of whom do not live in Fairfax--are given individual passes to most of the facilities. More than 50 retired Fairfax park administrators and former board members also have individual lifetime passes, Fitzgerald said.
Fairfax Park Authority officials said they do not keep track of how often officials use the passes. Fitzgerald said the fiscal impact of the policy is "inconsequential."
By comparison, a family in Fairfax would have to pay $828 for a yearly pass to the county's eight recreation centers. Daily admission to the county's popular water park, the Water Mine Family Swimmin' Hole, costs nearly $40 for a family of four. Greens fees at county golf courses range from $16 to $34 a person for 18 holes.
Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) estimated that he has used his pass to play golf "five or six times."
He said the passes allow officials to keep tabs on facilities they help oversee, just as he might visit a development site in a zoning case.
"I think that people charged with making decisions ought to go out and be able to see these things," Frey said.
But Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence) said he has never used his parks pass, arguing that elected officials should not take advantage of "special perks."
"I pay my way," Connolly said. "When I take my daughter to play miniature golf, I pay for it. . . . I've never made an issue of it, but it does make me uncomfortable."
De la Fe said the passes are one of the few pieces of compensation offered to park board members, who unlike supervisors receive no salary or stipend. An avid swimmer, de la Fe said he has used his pass at pools and to take grandchildren to the Water Mine.
Officials in Arlington and Loudoun counties and Alexandria said they do not offer any free passes or special discounts to recreation facilities for elected officials. Beth Robertson, spokeswoman for the Prince William County Park Authority, said park board members there get 50 percent discounts on admission fees.
Fairfax parks officials are considering fee adjustments that would increase revenue by 2 percent, including higher greens fees at Burke Lake, a 65-cent increase for recreation center admissions and a quarter extra to ride carousels.
Free Recreation for Some
Fairfax supervisors, Park Authority board members and a dozen other Northern Virginia officials can use most Fairfax County parks and recreation centers for free, as can their family members and guests. Some examples of what it costs other citizens to use the same facilities:
Annual Leisure Fitness Pass $828
(unlimited family use of recreation centers)
Twin Lakes-Oaks Golf Course 192
(four players, 18 holes, two carts, weekend)
The Water Mine Family Swimmin' Hole (adults) 9.95
Recreation centers (family of four, daily) 20
Burke Lake rowboat rental, daily 25
Overnight camping (four people with 15
SOURCE: Fairfax County Park Authority