Our View: Recreation at a cost
November 22, 2011
We believe it is reasonable and prudent, in a time of austerity, for city of Steamboat Springs officials to take a fresh look at the level of subsidies being supplied to some of the community's largest recreational venues. However, we are not optimistic that a combination of cost-saving measures and increased fees at Howelsen Hill Ski Area, Brent Romick Rodeo Arena, Howelsen Ice Arena, the Tennis Center at Steamboat Springs and Haymaker Golf Course will make a meaningful dent in those subsidies. Several city officials close to the issue have acknowledged they do not expect those facilities to become self-sustaining.
"Will we get all those funds to match revenues with expenses?" Steamboat Springs City Council President Bart Kounovsky asked this month. "Probably not. But that doesn't mean we're not going to continue trying to make them as efficient and customer-friendly as possible."
City Council set out on the correct path in about 2009 when it pulled the budgets for the various recreation facilities out of its general fund budget so that it would be easier to analyze them for what they are and arrive at the appropriate level of subsidies. It was at that time they became enterprise funds.
Ironically, an enterprise fund, by definition, is one that is self-sustaining.
We're also mindful that the business structures the city uses to operate those facilities each are different from the other. The Tennis Center and Haymaker are run by contractors. City employees run Howelsen Hill and the ice arena.
Of the bunch, Howelsen Hill, the oldest ski area west of the Mississippi, by far is provided the largest subsidy at a projected $660,000 in 2012.
With all those considerations in mind, we would ask the city to continue to look for fat in the budgets of those respective facilities but also to do more research to be as fair as possible to the recreation communities those represent.
One place to start might be to analyze the ratio of city subsidies for those facilities to their operating budgets. What percentage of the overall budget does the subsidy represent?
The city should attempt to generate a report on the level of subsidy per recreational visit at each facility. In dollars and cents, to what extent does the city subsidize each golfer, tennis player, ice skater and skier?
Just as enlightening would be to research what portion of the local populace never makes use of any of those facilities. We'd also be curious to know how well the city's major recreational facilities are used by people who live outside the city limits (acknowledging that large numbers of folks living outside the city contribute to our sales tax revenue).
In the end, we suspect that the proper fiscal balance between spending city funds on the nuts and bolts of government — wastewater treatment and roads, for example — and luxuries like municipal ski areas and indoor skating arenas won't be determined by a spreadsheet.
It's natural for city department leaders to covet public monies for their particular mission. But this is a town that places a great deal of emphasis on quality of life. And that's what Haymaker, Howelsen Hill, the ice arena and the Tennis Center all are about.
As Deputy City Manager Deb Hinsvark told the Steamboat Today:
"The citizens' tax dollars have been invested in these entities. Truly, citizens' desire to have them keeps them here. As long as citizens continue to support them with their tax dollar, they'll continue to operate. But at the same time, we feel an obligation to reduce the drain on the citizens' tax dollar to ensure they function as well as possible."
If there are savings to be realized without unduly compromising the rink, the links, the hill and the ice, we're all for it. But before the city prunes them too aggressively, it should arm itself with more data and ask its taxpayers how they feel about it.