Candidates for the City Council have made the cost of Commerce’s popular Resident Activity Card a big issue in the March 3 election, claiming a 3-tier fee system imposed five years ago during the economic downturn is hurting low-income residents and seniors, and should have been rolled back some time ago.
The issue has made it on to campaign mailers and at a recent candidate’s debate, several candidates vying for two council seats, criticized the council for not cutting the fees given the city’s improved financial outlook.
Lea este artículo en Español: Commerce Reduce los Costos de Actividades
Last week, the Commerce City Council did just that, unanimously approving a motion by Mayor Tina Baca del Rio to eliminate the multi-level pricing schedule in favor of an across the board $5 processing fee for all residents, with the exception of seniors 70 and older who will receive the lifetime card for free. The council also voted to eliminate registration fees for a majority of the city’s recreation programs.
The city’s activity card allows residents to take part in a variety of activities for free that many other cities charge for, such as aerobic and aquatic exercise classes, sports programs, dance, arts & crafts classes and preschool programs.
Dealing with the financial fallout of the “Great Recession” and a $3 million revenue shortfall, the council voted in September 2010 to increase the fees, and in June 2011 to establish the controversial 3-tier system as it tried to manage the then nearly $4 million deficit in the wake of the State’s taking away of the city’s redevelopment funds.
But the city’s finances have improved, with a $1 million dollar surplus for the 2013-2014 Fiscal Year, in large part due to increased revenue from Measure AA, a 2012 voter approved half cent sales tax increase.
City Council candidate John Soria has made the fees the linchpin of his campaign and told EGP he’s glad the others candidates have also seen the “value” of reducing the fees and have made it their cause.
“Our residents deserve to have affordable access to city programs and services available as a result of healthy revenue generated by our industrial neighbors,” he said.
Candidate and former councilman Hugo Argumedo told EGP he does not understand why it’s taken the council so long to act on reducing the fees for programs that the city’s low-income residents depend on.
“Why did it take an election for them to act,” he said. “They had no problem raising their salaries,” referring to a 35% increase approved earlier this year.
By law, the city council can raise their salaries 5% a year, but due to the financial crisis, they had not hiked their pay in seven years. The 35% increase covers the full seven years and will go into effect in April. Only Councilwoman Denise Robles, who is up for reelection, opposed the increase.
The council always said it would rollback fees once the city’s financial condition improved and they believe it has, Parks and Recreation Director Scott Wasserman told EGP.
In a letter mailed out last Thursday and Friday to about 3,300 Commerce households, City Administrator Jorge J. Rifa wrote that Commerce’s improving financial condition had allowed the council to reduce the Resident Activity Card to $5 and reduce fees on other popular programs.
He thanked the community on behalf of the city council for “paying the increased recreation fees for the past 5 years,” as the city was “coping with the impacts of the ‘Great Recession.’”
Other programs, such as kids club, youth and adult swim lessons, camp Commerce, adult golf program, admission to the adult holiday faire and adult arts and crafts will continue charging, as they have always done.
Former councilwoman Sylvia Munoz said she’s glad the fees have been reduced, “but residents deserve more.” She said since Commerce was first founded it always operated under the motto of “the city for the people” and resident cards were free. Now, she questions whether the fee reduction is permanent or if they will go up again after the elections.
The fee reduction will reduce city revenue by $65,000, Wasserman told the council at its Feb. 17 meeting. He said all but $13,000 of the revenue was generated through the $10 regular card, the cheapest in the 3-tier schedule.
According to Rifa, park fees “will be reconciled with the many budget priorities and decisions that go into approving a balanced fiscal year 2015-2016 budget.”
The approval of Measure AA coupled with businesses doing better has put the city in a better place to keep programs strong, Councilman Ivan Altamirano told EGP.
“It is a great thing to be able to hear what our community needs are and be able to provide [it],” he said.
Munoz told EGP the three-tier card was hurting mainly families with three or more children because activities were becoming expensive. “Hopefully now [with the change] they can enroll kids in more sports,” she said.
The city will refund fees to residents who paid the higher fees after Jan. 1 of this year. People who paid with a credit card will have the money returned to the card they used. Those who paid by cash or check should go to the parks and recreation counter to request a refund between March 1 and April 1, 2015.