Public forum reveals broad support for a utility fee tacked on to monthly bills to help pay for burgeoning rec plans

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - At a public forum in March, St. Helens Finance Director Matt Brown (right) explains how a monthly fee would benefit community members.

St. Helens leaders have so far found widespread support for a potential $2 monthly utility bill service fee to fund the St. Helens Recreation Program, which was announced in partnership with the St. Helens School District in April 2018. The new recreation center opened last month.

To date, the program has largely been grant-funded. But grants are primarily for startup and expansion projects, and don't offer a stable source of funds for ongoing expenses, according to St. Helens Finance Director Matt Brown.

In a city-administered survey, more than 85 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay a monthly fee of $2 or more to support the program. The fee would provide roughly $160,000 annually, according to city projections.

"Kids need a place to go to be safe, a place to go to make friends, a place to go to belong," St. Helens Councilor Ginny Carlson said at the forum.

"It's not just kids," Mayor Rick Scholl said, "it's a [recreation] program for adults, too."

"My family is already utilizing some of the programs," said resident Jeanette Johnston, who has taken Zumba classes at the center. Johnston's son is enrolled in a cooking class, which she said is "something that's never been an option for us."

The recreation center, which also employs three local high school students, has already led a spring break camp for youth, cooking classes, community meals, a "parent cafe" for recently reunited mothers and children and more. Close to 200 people visit the center on Saturdays, according to Shanna Duggan, the center's recreation coordinator.

"We need role models for our students and we need programs for adults," St. Helens School District Superintendent Scott Stockwell said. "Our kids need to see adults behaving like adults," engaging in friendly competition and learning new things.

At the forum, only one attendee said they would not support a fee, arguing improvements to the city's parks are more urgent than starting a new program.

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - The intersection where the Recreation Center opened last month presents safety risks, community members say.

The recreation center sits at a wide intersection with a single stoplight and a crosswalk. Some community members say more children coming to the building means updated safety measures at the intersection are all the more critical.

St. Helens residents would pay free or reduced prices. The city is also considering a membership fee so that people outside the St. Helens city limits can also benefit from lower pricing.

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