Fairfax County Park Authority launches survey to identify barriers to programs

The Fairfax County Park Authority’s Providence RECenter (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

The Fairfax County Park Authority wants to know how community members are using its park facilities.

The park authority has launched an equity survey, open through Monday, April 1, as part of its ongoing work to improve access to park programs.

“The Park Authority has intentionally been applying an equity lens to our park system in order to ensure that the accessibility and variety of our program offerings align with the present-day values and interests of our community,” Park Authority Executive Director Jai Cole said. “This latest outreach effort is important to help us identify the barriers that yet need to be overcome such as economic, cultural, transportation and others so that we can continue to make the benefits of parks accessible to everyone.”

The survey asks about the use of parks, rec centers, summer camps, golf courses, nature centers and historical sites. In several cases, respondents have space to explain why they don’t use a given resource. Respondents are asked to provide some personal information, including race, ethnicity and home ZIP code.

“We’re particularly interested in understanding potential barriers that you experience which prevent you from taking full advantage of recreational opportunities,” the survey instructions read.

The survey builds on a recent equity study that found FCPA’s approach to funding some of its programs, including summer camps and rec center memberships, is not consistent with national best practices and is a barrier to their accessibility.

The current model requires fees to cover 100% of both direct program costs, such as equipment, and indirect overhead costs, such as building utilities. In contrast, the median cost recovery from fees across parks and recreation agencies nationally is 25%, and cost recovery typically does not include indirect costs, the study says.

Conducted by the consulting firm HR&A, the study points to greater racial diversity and diversity in household income in Rec-PAC, a recreational program that doesn’t have to recover 100% of its costs, compared to summer camps and other work operating with full cost recovery.

In the case of summer camps, 71% of campers come from households making at least $150,000 per year, even though just 40% of the county’s population meets that income bracket; 69% of summer camp participants are white, compared to 50% of the county’s population.

“These high fees make many programs unaffordable and therefore inaccessible to a large portion of the population, and it hampers the park authority’s ability to provide equitable services,” HR&A Managing Partner Stan Wall told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors when presenting the study’s initial findings in January.

The equity study includes two main recommendations. First, for an estimated $9.4 million, FCPA could reduce some fees across the board by factoring community benefit into its cost recovery requirement. For instance, children’s swim lessons would not require full cost recovery.

Second, FCPA could offer targeted subsidies to help lower-income households take advantage of recreation programs and resources.

In total, the study estimates it would take $17.2 million to implement a sliding fee scale for certain programs and flexible annual vouchers to cover some recreation expenses for qualified households, including costs for administrative work, outreach and software.

To fund these programs, the county could consider “a dedicated tax stream,” according to the presentation.

“The good news is that many other places have dedicated tax streams for parks and recreation, whether property tax levies or other creative funding streams, and these measures consistently have high levels of voter support,” Wall said.

The equity survey’s results will help inform the FCPA’s recommendations to its board and the Board of Supervisors, which are expected to come this fall.

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