See more of the story

St. Paul City Council members are pushing back against a proposed daily fee for after-school programs at the city’s recreation centers and asking whether the Parks and Recreation Department can find other ways to cut costs.

After expanding free rec center programming in 2019, charging fees in 2020 “feels like a bit of a wash in what we’ve been trying to do,” Council Member Rebecca Noecker said at a budget committee meeting Wednesday.

“I noticed a lot of departments in their budgets, since this is clearly a lean budget year, have found real efficiencies in terms of office supplies and furniture and janitorial services and technology,” Noecker said. “I don’t see those efficiencies in the parks budget — I see cutting of services.”

The proposed 2020 budget, which Mayor Melvin Carter unveiled earlier this month, includes an anticipated $225,000 in revenue from a $5 daily fee for the after-school Rec Check and Summer Blast programs. Children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch would not have to pay, and the Parks Department would not start collecting fees until next summer or fall.

Council Member Jane Prince, who said she shared Noecker’s concerns about the daily fee, noted that eliminating library fines last year also eliminated the time staff members spent collecting them. She asked whether the time needed for parks staff to collect fees would add an extra cost. The Parks Department charges for other programs but has provided Rec Check for free since it began in the early 2000s.

“I want to see the cost of taking in that money, and how it’s going to be managed by staff,” Prince said.

Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm presented an overview of the department’s proposed budget to council members Wednesday morning and will make more detailed presentations about parks operations and services at later meetings. Other department directors are making similar presentations before the council’s levy limit vote in September and final budget approval in December.

The 2019 budget nearly tripled funding for an initiative to expand rec center programming in areas of concentrated poverty where most residents are people of color, and enrollment in Rec Check and Summer Blast jumped from 2,000 to 3,000 as a result.

Hahm said at Wednesday’s committee meeting that the proposed 2020 budget prioritizes sustaining last year’s investment in rec center programs. The department is also planning to spend an extra $250,000 in 2020 to accommodate changing school start times with longer rec center hours.

“In my conversations with Mayor Carter, as we came to conclusions on this budget, they were very tough choices to prioritize where we do make that investment,” Hahm said.

Carter’s $622 million 2020 budget includes more than $4 million in cuts citywide. Proposed Parks Department reductions include some personnel costs, as well as about $30,000 for hanging flower baskets and $100,000 for holiday lights and ice skating downtown in the winter of 2020-21.

The department also is anticipating $100,000 in additional revenue in 2020, when visitors to Como Zoo and Conservatory will be able to donate using a credit card instead of cash.

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509