Sticker shock: Beach prices could rise as officials explore options for financial year ahead
Summer may seem like a long way off, but policymakers are already thinking about the season ahead — and an increase in beach sticker prices from $35 to $40 could be on the table.
Officials from the Parks and Recreation Board discussed the potential rate hike at a meeting on Jan. 19 following a request from the town’s Finance Committee to look into it — as well as a hypothetical 10% budget cut scenario — in anticipation of economic woes caused by Covid.
Beach stickers have cost $35 for around a decade. The proposed $5 hike would help pay for an increase in the minimum wage that the department was forced to absorb last year, officials said.
But most at the meeting seemed reluctant to pursue a rate increase as a solution.
“It’s a catch-22, because you increase the price, you might see a decline in sales,” noted board member Joan Britto. “So what is going to be the net profit from it?”
“I can’t vote to increase it in the middle of the pandemic,” commented board member Jim Vieira. “I just can’t do it.”
“If we have to do it, we have to do it,” said board chair Joe Vieira. “But let’s just delay it until we see what’s actually going to be happening out there. I mean who knows, there may be more [stimulus] money available to us this year.”
“I may not think $5 is a big thing, but there are people who budget down to $5,” he added. “The beach is good for the soul...[raising prices] just doesn’t make sense.”
Board members also noted that many of last year’s safety guidelines and regulations limiting capacity could still be in place when beaches open in June.
But department revenues weren’t much less than normal last year, officials stated — and usage of the town’s parks and recreational spaces is up.
“Right now the town is growing incredibly with a demand on our services,” said Parks Director Tim Lancaster. “I don’t know if it has to do with Covid, because Covid is pushing people outside…[but] we’re doing things that we normally wouldn't necessarily have to do.”
But while the Finance Committee has asked all town departments to look at a 10% budget cut for the next fiscal year as a planning exercise, tightening purse strings have already been felt in the department.
Maintenance at several town properties was reduced over the summer, noted Lancaster.
“People don’t like it, but unfortunately it’s out of our control,” he added. “You can only do so much.”
In a 10% budget cut scenario, board members said they would favor reducing the number of lifeguards and keeping properties maintained and functional.
“There’s no good option,” Lancaster said. “Because we’re a revenue-generating department...as you cut these positions down, our revenue goes down.”
Members noted that if the sticker price is raised, the budget could not be cut. “You can’t tell people we’re gonna charge an extra $5 and then cut the [hours],” said Jim Vieira.
“The discussion on the beach sticker price earlier, that’s all based on us operating at full capacity,” Lancaster agreed. “We are offering a massive, major service to the community. And that’s what the beach sticker pays to do.”
“But this is just an exercise,” he added.
“I’m still trying to figure out how they gave the Town Administrator that pay raise,” said board member Jim Boswell about a $25,000 raise granted to Town Administrator Shawn MacInnes in a contract approved in December. “We’re trying to cut pennies here, while they’re giving raises.”
Finance Committee member Robert Gauvin said that revenues for the first six months of the year will come out by the end of the month.
At the meeting the board approved a $2.6 million five-year capital plan that included $535,000 to fix the Round Hill beach roadway in fiscal year 2023 and $450,000 to replace the playground at the park on Old Fall River Road in 2024.
The playground at Jones Park near the Bucket will be replaced in fiscal year 2022 for $360,000, with more building repairs at the spot planned at a cost still to be decided.
Just like last summer, year-round Dartmouth residents will again be able to buy their beach stickers first, with seasonal renters eligible for stickers afterwards.
Approval from the board will also be required for any temporary passes.
The board will decide on the cost for beach stickers at its March meeting.