Japanese Tea Garden. (Melissa Vong/S.F. Examiner)

Rec and Park officials need to justify their call for higher fees

This Thursday the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission is expected to recommend to the Board of Supervisors a new surge pricing fee structure for four of the Department’s most popular and heavily marketed tourist attractions — the Japanese Tea Garden, Coit Tower, the Conservatory of Flowers and the Botanical Gardens. According to Recreation and Parks Department Permits and Reservations Manager Dana Ketcham, the new fee structure is intended to decrease visitor congestion and provide additional revenue to be used to improve low income residents’ access to public facilities. If approved, surge pricing would allow increases of up to 50 percent for adult nonresident fees at the busier times and discounts of up to 25 percent during less popular time slots.

State law requires that local governments provide full cost of recovery information prior to the approval of any new fees or fee increases. In its supporting documentation for the surge pricing proposal, Recreation and Parks Department officials have not provided any cost of recovery information. Local law, specifically Administrative Code Section 3.7, imposes additional disclosure requirements. Departments must provide cost of recovery evaluations for all fees charged as part of the annual fiscal year budget process.

A citizens lawsuit filed in 2012 alleged the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department was repeatedly violating its legally required annual cost of recovery disclosure obligations. The lawsuit settled in May 2013. The Department admitted to violating San Francisco Administrative Code Section 3.7 and agreed to provide cost of recovery information moving forward.

For FY 2013-2014 through FY 2016-2017, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department did provide cost of recovery information for some fees including admissions fees for the Japanese Tea Garden, the Conservatory of Flowers and the Botanical Gardens and the elevator fee at Coit Tower. Based on the most recent data supplied by the Department for the FY 2016-2017 budget, the cost of recovery at Coit Tower is approximately $4/person and $2.75/ person at the Japanese Tea Garden. At $13.50, the current $9 adult non-resident rate plus the possible maximum 50 percent increase of $4.50 allowed under the new surge pricing proposal, the Recreation and Parks Department would be charging non-resident adult visitors to the Japanese Tea Garden a 490 percent cost of recovery fee and non-resident adult visitors to Coit Tower a 335 percent cost of recovery fee. California municipalities routinely charge adult non-residents more for access to certain facilities and programs. But for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department the fee gouging clearly does not stop there. At the current $6 adult resident and non-resident youth and senior admission fees to the Japanese Tea Garden the Department is charging its adult resident and non-resident youth and senior visitors with a fee that is approximately double the cost to provide the service for which it is being charged.

Under the new surge pricing fee structure, the facilities could also adjust fees based on weather conditions. Any surge pricing adjustments would be at the discretion of the individual facilities.

Admissions at two of the facilities — the Botanical Gardens and the Conservatory of Flowers — are operated by employees of private nonprofit organizations which could leave decisions over the pricing of public facilities in the hands of private individuals. And even if every surge pricing adjustment required the written approval of a public employee, it is not at all clear that any additional revenue generated by surge pricing will help to improve access for low income residents.

All admissions revenue at the Botanical Gardens and the Conservatory of Flowers, including any increased revenues generated under surge pricing, are collected by private nonprofit organizations, the Botanical Garden Society and the San Francisco Parks Alliance. The Botanical Gardens is already free to residents so any additional revenue would not be needed to improve access for low income residents. Furthermore, according to the Department’s Lease with the Botanical Garden Society, all admissions revenue collected in excess of the cost of the fee collection expenses is deposited in to the Botanical Gardens Improvement Fund. As for the Conservatory of Flowers, under the Department’s current Lease with the San Francisco Parks Alliance for the operation of the facility, any fee revenue collected in excess of fee collection expenses is similarly dedicated to the maintenance and improvement of the Conservatory. And at Coit Tower, per Prop B passed by SF voters in June 2012, any excess admission revenues collected at the Tower are supposed to be used for maintenance and repairs of the historic facility and its PWA era murals.

Before approving the current surge pricing proposal, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors should insist on receiving full cost of recovery information from the Recreation and Parks Department as required by both state and local law. Beginning with the FY 2017-2018 budget, Department officials have once again stopped providing any cost of recovery information. To make matters worse, it appears the Recreation and Parks Department and the Controller’s Office have falsely reported on Budget Form 2B and the Master Fee Schedule that all Department fees are set at less than cost of recovery. The Kezar parking fees, the Carousel fees, encroachment fees and the fees for the Japanese Tea Garden admissions and the Coit Tower elevator continue to provide significant profits for the Department each year. It is time to demand some accountability from City officials for their repeated failure to adequately evaluate the thousands of fees that are charged to San Francisco’s residents and visitors. If City officials are truly committed to economic justice and fairness, cost of recovery evaluations are essential.

To reduce visitor congestion, the Recreation and Parks Department does not need to increase fees for the busier times to rates that are four to five times amounts needed to cover costs. The Department could just as easily reduce the already exorbitant fees for the less popular times.

Anmarie Mabbut is a San Francisco attorney and open government advocate specializing in municipal fee legislation, public-private partnerships and public park access. She can be reached at acu@umich.edu.

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