More needs to be done to make Fairfax Co. parks, rec programs accessible to all residents, study finds

Parks and recreation programming in Fairfax County, Virginia, are not financially accessible to all its residents. That’s according to a new study which looked at equity in parks and recreation.

The study commissioned by the Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) investigated how services, including park access and programs, were offered and compared those results to other municipalities.

It found that the authority’s budget relies totally on fees and charges users to pay for what it does.

“These high fees make programs unaffordable and therefore inaccessible to a large portion of your population,” said Stan Wall, managing partner at HR&A, the urban development consulting firm that conducted the study.

Speaking to the county’s board of supervisors on Tuesday, he cited summer camps as an example. Results showed 71% of summer camp families made over $150,000 a year, yet only 40% of people who live in the county make that much money.

It also showed that in a county where 50% of the population is white, 80% of rec center users were white.

The report pointed to the authority’s fee structure, which requires 100% of all programs be covered by money collected from those who sign up for a program, such as swimming lessons or a Pilates class. The fees not only cover direct costs such as the wages of those running the programs but also indirect costs, for things such as paper towels or utilities for the rec center where the programs are held.

Karla Bruce, chief equity officer for Fairfax County, said the authority was created in the 1950s during a time of segregation.

“As many of the actual parks came to be, Black people were prevented from being able to enjoy the benefits of those parks,” Bruce said.

During that period, what is now the Neighborhood and Community Services was formed to provide recreation and social activities for residents of color in the county. The program still exists today, and with its budget in 2023, only 29% of its budget depends on cost recovery, whereas 59% of FCPA’s does.

Wall said FCPA’s fees and charges models were put in place in a “different time period” to address revenue concerns.

“We’re now realizing they don’t align with the county’s values,” Wall said.

To put the Park’s Authority more in line with other recreation departments the study recommends three practices the authors believe would ensure equity.

The first is a community benefit pyramid for cost recovery. With this system, users utilizing FCPA facilities for services such as retail activities and personal training would be paying the most whereas swim lessons and summer camps would see users paying nothing toward cost recovery.

The second recommendation is a sliding scale for some programs, which lowers the costs for programs for families with lower incomes. An example scale showed families making more than $130,500 paying $301 for a class or camp and families making less than $52,999 paying $11 for a spot.

The final recommendation is to provide flexible annual vouchers to low-income families who qualify, which would cover the costs of programs.

According to Wall, the tentative cost to the county to implement the changes would be an additional $27 million.

“In combination, these programs will make sure that these are not a barrier to participation, they’ll expand access to all the benefits of high growth, public recreation,” Wall said.

The report also found the move would require infrastructure updates at some county recreation centers.

County Supervisors appeared supportive of the recommendations, among them Chair Jeff McKay.

“The challenge we have now is how we get to a better system that is more equitable,” McKay said.

James Walkinshaw believes in the 1950s the fees were used as a tool of segregationists.

“Segregation is tied up not just in the fee structure, but also in the governance model. And that’s an uncomfortable thing to say. I think we have to acknowledge that and think about that,” Walkinshaw said.

He also called for a look into the operating structure of FCPA which is overseen by what he called a “quasi-independent” 12-member board appointed by the board of supervisors.

Board member Pat Herrity agreed.

“I think it is time to look at the whole structure, the revenue model, the separate authority, as we move forward,” he said.

The next steps, according to the county, is public outreach and working with stake holders, before returning to the board of supervisors with more in the fall.

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Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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