City considers ending free over-80 rec passes

City politicians will consider axing free recreation passes for seniors over 80 during it's next fees and charges review

Nanaimo city officials will consider nixing free recreation passes for seniors over 80.

The Parks, Recreation and Culture Commission is recommending city council drop its free recreation program for  the over-80 crowd as part of changes stemming from a review into how recreation is subsidized.

According to Nanaimo city staff members, residents automatically qualify for free access to civic facilities as soon as they turn 80, regardless of financial need. That could change in 2016, if city council agrees to charge seniors half the regular recreation rate.

Longtime advocate June Ross cautions against the move, saying it will hit the least-able-to-pay demographic and limit access to facilities that encourage mobility and independence. Instead of cutting the free program, the city should take it one step further by including seniors over 65, she said, adding it would be a proactive measure to keep people out of the health care system.

But city councillor Fred Pattje argues the city has to offer financial assistance within reason.

“…If there is someone of high age who can pay, I’m not sure it should be free,” Pattje said.  “Ability to pay is the main thrust and all of this is in light of us trying to get the leanest possible budget.”

The City of Nanaimo began reviewing recreation assistance programs last June. According to city officials, government funding cuts and cost of living increases have led to a growing demand from schools and not-for-profits for reduced recreation rates. None of the groups currently qualify for financial help. The Leisure Economic Access Program, for example, only provides assistance to those that meet national low-income cut offs.

The need for generalized subsidies triggered a search for a consistent way groups facing financial hardship can apply for lower rates, but it also raised questions about how much aid the city should give seniors based on age alone.

The city has spent $64,160 on the senior subsidy program since 2010 —nine per cent of the total $691,544 spent on free programs like the Leisure Economic Access Program and the Grade 5 Get Active Pass.

Pattje, who sits on the parks, recreation and culture commission, said he supports initiatives to promote the use of civic facilities and recognizes it’s important to allow seniors access “within reason” to stay healthy. A new policy charging seniors over 80 still sounds like a good deal, he said.

Those unable to pay the new cost could apply to the leisure access program.

Ross, however, disagrees with the recommendation.  There are no studies determining how many of those using the city’s free above-80 program can afford the city’s fees—making the ‘ability to pay’ argument ludicrous, she said.

“[It’s also] very ironical that parks and recreation claims to be a wellness part of the city [and] that they could do that kind of elimination. How are they promoting wellness?”

The changes will be considered as part of the next fees and charges review in 2016 —and potentially during budget reviews this October.