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For years, St. Paul’s recreation centers have provided parents with free child care after school and throughout the summer.

With their popularity soaring, the child care programs are costing the city so much that Mayor Melvin Carter thinks it’s time for parents to shoulder some of the cost.

In the 2020 budget he revealed Thursday, Carter has proposed a $5 daily fee for the Rec Check and Summer Blast programs, which serve children in first through fifth grades.

The fee would generate $225,000 in 2020 and help pay for expanded recreation center hours and staff needed to serve the 3,000 children who currently participate in the two programs, said Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm.

“We want a budget that allows us to continue to have this service available to serve the 3,000 young people we’re serving right now,” Hahm said.

The $5 fee would be a first for the parks department, which charges for other programs but has provided Rec Check for free since it began in the early 2000s. Parks officials are still figuring out how the fee structure would work, so the two programs will likely remain free until next summer or fall, Hahm said. Children who qualify for free or reduced lunch would not be required to pay.

Rec Check and Summer Blast together are expected to cost about $900,000 in 2020, according to parks spokeswoman Clare Cloyd.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board provides a similar program called Rec Plus, which costs $16.50 a day for Minneapolis residents and $21.25 a day for nonresidents. In the summer, fees range from $40 to $53 a day.

St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen, who along with other council members heard the fee proposal for the first time during Carter’s budget address, said $5 a day is “a really great bargain for people who can afford it.”

“When I had little kids, I would have been happy to pay $5 a day to have them with mentors and great programming at a rec center,” she said.

Carter’s proposal comes as the Parks Department gets ready to accommodate changing school start times with longer rec center hours. Hahm said parks staff have spent the last year preparing for the expanded hours, which will cost the city $250,000, according to a document outlining Carter’s budget proposal.

Meanwhile, participation in Rec Check and Summer Blast has skyrocketed.

In his 2019 budget, Carter nearly tripled funding for the Parks Department’s Equity Matters initiative to expand programming in areas of concentrated poverty where most residents are people of color. That brought more people into the city’s rec centers, and enrollment in Rec Check and Summer Blast jumped from 2,000 to 3,000, said Brad Meyer, the department’s chief financial officer.

Program participation in Rec Check and Summer Blast will be capped at 3,000 going forward, Hahm said.

The proposed 2020 parks budget includes about $40 million for parks and recreation, up $1.6 million from 2019. Carter proposed a property tax levy increase of 4.85%; the City Council will vote on the levy limit — which could be higher or lower — in September, and will approve a final version of the budget in December.

The council is holding a public forum on the budget at City Hall on Aug. 28. Attendees will hear about the budget and break into small groups with their council members.