SELECTMEN NOTEBOOK: Town Beach To Continue To Be FREE For Residents; “No Easy Answer” For Non-Resident Fees

WILMINGTON, MA — Wilmington Recreation Director Karen Campbell recently presented the Board of Selectmen with a thorough explanation of the town’s non-resident beach fee policy.  (Review the slideshow HERE.)

For the past four years, Wilmington has charged non-residents $10 per person (3 and up) per beach visit.

If the town reduced or eliminated the fee for non-residents, Campbell is concerned about the repercussions on residents:

  • The beach’s revenue will drastically reduce. The beach regularly runs a deficit. During the 9-week 2017 season, the deficit ballooned to $20,632.  Expenses totaled $47,292 — almost all of which was lifeguard payroll. Revenue totaled $26,600 — 86% ($22,922) of which came from non-resident fees.  Currently, the deficit is paid from revenue generated by the Recreation Department’s classes, trips and other offerings.  If the deficit continues to grow, taxpayer dollars may have to help close it.
  • The beach’s operating expenses will increase. If more non-residents use the beach due to an elimination or reduction in fees, there will be a need for additional lifeguards. Lifeguards currently make up more than 90% of the beach’s expenses.  Campbell noted that there’s been three consecutive years of increases to the minimum wage, which effects the wages of the lifeguards.
  • The beach’s access will be decreased to residents. With more non-residents frequenting the beach, the beach is likely to reach “capacity’ more often.  The beach stops accepting new visitors based on the Red Cross’s 15:1 ratio of “swimmers” to lifeguards.  When there are, for example, 4 lifeguards on duty, there can be no more than 60 swimmers in the water.   Lifeguards are also mandated to maintain a rotation to give one another time off from watching the water.

In addition to a limited supply of lifeguards, Campbell noted other realities of the beach, including its limited parking and amenities, its relatively small size, and its small swimming area.

Campbell stressed that the Recreation Department’s Town Beach mission is “to provide a clean, safe and attractive facility for Wilmington residents at no additional cost to them.”

She noted that there doesn’t appear to be consensus with how other nearby town beaches address the non-resident issue, pointing to Pomps Pond in Andover ($10 on weekday, $20 on weekend), Stevens Pond in North Andover (non-residents not allowed), Micozzi Beach in Billerica ($3 per car or $35 season car pass), Westford Town Beaches ($5 for non-residetns, but with no lifeguards on duty), and Winchester Beach ($55 season pass or $4-$5 daily pass).  Campbell noted that Wilmington’s town beach must accept non-residents because, at some point in its history, the town accepted state grant money to fix up the beach.

Campbell looked at several scenarios, including giving each Wilmington household four day passes for non-residents or a card with 10 punches.  The math, according to Campbell, just don’t work — in terms of a decrease in revenue, an increase in costs, and an increase in non-resident usage resulting in an increase in instances where residents will have to wait to use the beach due to “capacity” issues, especially during peak times and on the weekends.

“If we try to come up ways — and we’ve tried — to have a select group of non-residents attend the beach at a reduced or free rate with their Wilmington resident friends or family, it becomes really problematic to maintain a system that is fair and can’t be co-opted,” said Campbell, who has served in the Recreation Department for 14 years.

“How tolerant are residents, or non-residents for that matter, going to be when they have to wait in the parking lot for folks to come out?,” added Town Manager Jeff Hull in response to Campbell’s “capacity” concerns.

Solving the non-resident fee dilemma would result in having to answer many questions, according to Campbell.  How do we develop a system that can’t be co-opted by other non-residents? Where do we find additional lifeguards? Who pays for them? Residents via taxes or new resident beach fees? Will the beach fill to capacity more often restricting access to residents? How will residents react when the beach is “full?” Will any proposed system actually satisfy the requests of residents that want non-residents to attend the beach at a reduced fee?

Campbell noted that the town already provides a great deal to non-residents for free, including Yentile Farm, the Dog Park, field use for youth sports and adult sports, tennis courts, playgrounds, library programming, and Recreational programming, including big community events like the Concerts on the Common, Horribles Parade, Easter Egg Hunt, Santa’s Workshop and more.

“If there was a way to provide [a reduced fee or no fee] to non-residents, I don’t believe we could do it without having some additional costs to residents in order to have non-residents go to the beach,” concluded Campbell. “I just don’t know how to do that so it’s fair for every resident to bring in their non-resident friend and family member without increasing our census to a point, or affecting the work of our lifuegards to a point.”

“I’m in agreement with Karen,” said Town Manager Jeff Hull. “As much as there’s a concern about the non-resident charge, I think the real intent is to provide a free recreational service to residents of Wilmington.  That’s what we’ve strived to do.  There’s no question that beach situation is much different today than it was 3-4 years ago.  There were just constant issues.  We put together a pretty comprehensive proposal to address them.  It’s been working. It’s much cleaner. Those folks are taking advantage of it have commented favorably…. My recommendation is to keep the existing system in place.”

“Everything came to head at the beach in 2014,” recalled Campbell.  “We had all kind of problems — trash, parking issues, people being very disrespectful to lifeguards, police there all the time. We’re hearing a lot of great feedback from residents that they’re enjoying the beach more and more now than ever in the past. That part is a win.”

“I think the beach is a great asset for the town,” said Selectman Ed Loud. “I have no reason to believe we should decrease or increase anything rate-wise.  I certainly don’t want to start charging the townspeople any fees at all.”

“I’m also not in favor charging a fee to our residents,” said Selectman Greg Bendel. “Where I’m up in the air is what’s the correct amount to charge a non-resident?  A grandma from Tewksbury taking her Wilmington grandkids to the beach, or a babysitter from Billerica taking the Wilmington kids she’s watching to the beach?…. There’s no easy answers.”

“I, too, agree there should be no fees for residents,” said Selectman Kevin Caira. “I really feel strongly, however, that we need to address the non-resident fee.” Caira recalled getting a recent letter where a Wilmington grandmother questioned why she had to pay $40 to bring her four out-of-town young grandkids to the beach.

“We’re all ears if you have any suggestions,” said Campbell.

Selectmen will attempt to tackle the issue at a future meeting. Town Manager Hull believes any beach rate change would have to be approved by the Selectmen.

Selectman Mike Champoux (family commitment) and Selectman Mike McCoy (car troubles) were late to the meeting and missed much of the discussion.

Watch The Video:

Watch this discussion, courtesy of Wilmington Community Television, below beginning at the 4-minute mark.

(NOTE: Cover photo from Jamie Boudreau.)

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