'Back to normal' easier said than done at THPRD
For Don Mejia and his family, the facilities the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District operate served as places for them to not only get a good workout, but a sense of community as well. Both his sons were lifeguards at the Conestoga Recreation & Aquatic Center, and he fondly remembers seeing folks of all backgrounds, ages and physical abilities using the pools and gyms there.
Like just about every other aspect of everyday life, COVID-19-related shutdowns took away access to THPRD pools, gyms and community centers. But after Gov. Kate Brown lifted statewide restrictions at the end of June, Mejia was disappointed to realize that he can't use THPRD facilities the same way he did before the pandemic. He says the changes in fees and accessibility makes it nearly impossible for residents like himself to navigate what was once easily accessible.
Today, Mejia says, he can only use the pool and workout facilities for 45 minutes per session, per day.
"For years, my wife and I have used the gym and pool for a good workout; and one of the best aspects of our rec center was the diverse community we were a part of," the Beaverton resident wrote in an email to THPRD representatives, which was shared with The Times. "It is sad to show up and wonder what happened to most of them because they are not there anymore."
Mejia said in an interview that he used to pay $134 for a pass that covered two people for three months before the shutdown last year.
"The pass would allow us to use any facility at THPRD," he said, "including gym, pool, basketball, volleyball. There would be an extra charge if we wanted to take a class."
Now, people who want to use the gyms or pools must create an account to make a reservation online.
Monthly passes are also no longer an option, with daily passes costing anywhere from $4.75 for individuals to $13.25 for households in Washington County.
Over time, these daily fees add up.
"I use the Conestoga pool six days per week, and I pay $126 per month only for swimming. Double it if I want to use the gym," he said.
Private gyms like Planet Fitness and LA Fitness, meanwhile, offer rates between $10 and $35 per month.
Property taxes also go toward keeping THPRD up and running. The district's current tax rate is $1.60 per $1,000 of assessed property value, so a Beaverton-area homeowner who owns a typical home worth $390,000 would pay $624 per year, or $52 per month, in property taxes toward THPRD, according to the district's website.
By way of comparison, the city of Tigard's permanent property tax rate is $2.51 per $1,000 of assessed value — not including a 29-cent-per-$1,000 public safety levy voters approved last year. Tigard is outside of THPRD boundaries, so Tigard residents don't pay taxes toward the district.
How COVID-19 set THPRD back
But despite those tax receipts, the aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown has left THPRD in a position where "back to normal" is not feasible just yet, said Holly Thompson, a THPRD spokesperson.
Now that the restrictions are gone, the biggest challenge ahead is financial. Revenue from property taxes alone don't keep the lights on, Thompson said.
Annual passes and fees for programs and classes amount to nearly one-quarter of the annual budget.
"Sixteen months of closures had a really devastating impact on our budget." Thompson said. "In comparison, other agencies that don't see such a large portion of their operating budget being reliant upon the public's use of those services. So, we're still playing catch-up."
Pandemic closures resulted in a total of $17 million in revenue loss since March 2020 for THPRD, according to the district. Officials estimate another $4-5 million in losses by July 2022.
In total, the pandemic-related program revenue losses are projected to be between $21-23 million, Thompson said. While the district did receive $4.3 million in pandemic-related grant funding to offset some of the losses, the net revenue loss is still projected to be between $16.7-18.7 million.
In the early days of the pandemic, THPRD was forced to lay off or furlough many staff members. Today, the district says, it has 300 unfilled positions.
"It just will take some time to catch up," Thompson said. "I think that's one of the biggest challenges right now is people think, 'Well, the restrictions are over, everything should open back up.' But if you don't have the money to hire the staff, and if you don't have staff because people were laid off over a year ago…"
Hoping for better days ahead
THPRD isn't the only such service provider in the region that is struggling right now. Portland Parks & Recreation also reports a significant loss in revenue during the 16-month shutdown.
But what sets Portland Parks & Recreation apart from THPRD is that Portland voters in 2020 approved a $240 million levy to subsidize parks programs and operational costs. Proponents of the levy said the funding would end the departments' reliance on fees and passes, thereby making facilities more accessible to more families.
But the levy wasn't a cure-all for all of Portland Parks & Recreation's problems. Portland's indoor community centers remain closed through the summer, said department spokesperson Mark Ross. Portland is also facing the same re-hiring challenges in its parks and recreation department.
"It's the same thing the service industry is going through," Ross said.
Thompson said she hopes to have an update on the future of how THPRD's facilities will operate by the end of the summer.
"Philosophically, we definitely want to bring those passes back as soon as we can," Thompson said. "And our hope is that in August, we'll be able to share and update with the public."
Mejia said he's not looking for a bargain, and he's willing to pay for something he values in the community. What he wants is to have full access to THPRD facilities again.
"We, as taxpayers and residents, expect to see a plan of action," Mejia said. "But there is nothing going on, it seems like. Somebody is waiting for something — I don't know who."
Most of all, Mejia said he misses seeing the people who used to regularly use the gyms and pools — like the retired farmworker he befriended who used to go swimming every day at 6 a.m. before the shutdown.
"I decided to call him a few days ago to see how he was doing," Mejia wrote in an email to Beaverton City Councilor Nadia Hasan, which was shared with The Times. "Fortunately, he is doing well, but the pool is one of the things he misses the most."
While Mejia can afford the increased cost for him to go swimming at Conestoga, his friend cannot, he told Hasan. If THPRD brings back the monthly pass it used to offer, he might be able to go back in the water too.
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