Most cities inch up their fees year by year to avoid steep hikes, and despite the economy, find residents keep their facilities hopping.
For the first time since Andover opened its community center seven years ago, the city raised its fees for open gym use and open skating -- and posted signs this fall to warn everyone of the coming price increase.
Charges went up by $1, to $3 per person for open gym use, and $4 and $5 for open skating for kids and adults. And for the first time ever, adults who don't live in Andover will have to pay $2 more than residents to use the open gym time.
While the increases may sound paltry, city officials worry they might not be perceived that way in a tight economy. As city councils all over the metro area set their 2012 user fees this month, fees are generally creeping up for everything from renting a community center room to using a city-run ambulance service.
In Bloomington, the charge for renting shelter No. 1 at Moir Park next summer will be $219 a day, about $6 more than this year. Playing in an adult volleyball league that's officiated in Edina will cost a team $15 more in 2012.
In Brooklyn Park, the city is still reviewing most of its fees.
"They're a small percentage of our overall revenue," said Cory Kampf, the city's finance director. "We haven't made changes yet for 2012 ... but that doesn't mean we won't."
Richfield, too, is an exception to the upward creep in fees. Though hourly rental of the city's ice sheet jumped $5 in September -- as it did in Brooklyn Park and at many rinks through the metro area -- city Recreation Services Director Jim Topitzhofer said many other fees, including charges for youth programs and adult sports programs, generally are holding steady.
"We've frozen wages," he said. "Because costs are not going up, we're not charging more for programs."
While officials in other cities said they are trying to hold down user fees at a time when many residents are sensitive to spending more money, they said that they have to try to recoup the cost of doing business.
Gradual fee increases over a series of years are easier for people to swallow than years of flat fees followed by a jump in charges, said Randy Quale, Bloomington's parks and recreation manager.
"If we have increases, we just do a little year by year rather than have a spike," he said. "Typically charges are to cover the same level of cost, though sometimes they are trying to generate more revenue in programs that are subsidized by the city."
The setting of fees for things like city art centers or ice rinks isn't haphazard. City officials said departmental staff begin reviewing fees months before proposals go to city councils. They look at what sort of improvements or repairs facilities need and talk about the price impact on residents.
No city wants to price itself out of the market.
"It's like any business," said Topitzhofer. "You have to ... keep an eye on what the market will bear but also look at the bottom line. I think generally the public gets that."
Pricing for city ice sheet use is carefully worked out not only by comparing rates to those in nearby cities but by consulting with heavy users of rinks about how big an increase they can tolerate. Erick Sutherland, Andover's recreation facility manager, said that every summer he surveys 10 to 12 surrounding communities to see what arenas are charging for ice use.
"A $5 an hour increase seems to be standard," he said. "We try to stay in the middle of the group. ... A couple of years we didn't do an increase to try to help [youth hockey groups] out a bit."
In many cities, ice rink rates change in September, when the hockey season begins. This year, the hourly rate to use Andover's city ice sheet increased to $185. Prime time on the rink is nearly fully reserved for use through the winter. While some area rinks rent for $160 an hour, others charge as much as $195.
Andover is still paying debt service on its seven-year-old community center, which contains the ice sheet and a field house with three basketball courts. Court rental during this winter's basketball and volleyball season has increased $1 from last year, to $46 per hour.
"We're not really making money, but we offset the majority of the costs," Sutherland said.
Nonresidents pay more
For the first time, Andover followed the lead of other cities and set a nonresident rate for adults for open gym time.
"It's a way to raise a few extra dollars, but we're not making Andover residents who are already paying for this with their taxes pay more," Sutherland said.
Bloomington, too, has targeted nonresidents for some fee increases, notably admission to the city's popular River Rendezvous program used by schools in September. The park program takes students back in history with reenactments of what life was like between 1830 and 1870. Quale said the city has been subsidizing that program, and the number of nonresident students attending has gone up.
"We're operating at a loss, and we hope we get that to a level where it's self-supporting," he said.
Eden Prairie's practice has been to generally raise fees about 3 percent a year, said Jay Lotthammer, parks and recreation director. In recent years, he said, complaints about fee increases have been rare. But Lotthammer and officials in other cities said that preserving access is uppermost in their minds as they set fees.
Kampf said Brooklyn Park purposely holds down youth program fees to preserve access for children whose families might not otherwise be able to afford to participate. Said Quale, "If the economy is not good, we shouldn't be in a position to increase fees just because we want to bring in more money. We want to make sure that the programs we're offering appeal to a high number of people."
So far, price increases have not affected use of Andover athletic facilities, Sutherland said.
"People here have had to cut other things out of their lives, but they seem pretty committed to continuing activity with their kids and everything that comes with being on a team," he said.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan