If you go

What: Consultants for the Mount Pleasant Recreation Department are seeking input about what the town is offering - and how much it's charging.

When: 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Alhambra Hall, 131 Middle St. (off Pitt Street) in Mount Pleasant.

Childcare: Will be provided. Those interested are asked to RSVP with Karen Bedenbaugh at 884-2528 or kbedenbaugh@tompsc.com.

MOUNT PLEASANT - Should this town's recreation department, long recognized as one of the state's best, trim its programs or raise fees?

Put it another way: Should Town Council keep spending about $7 million on recreation - slightly more than 10 percent of its total budget - while receiving only about $2.2 million from fees and sponsorships?

Those are big questions facing council members as they begin work on the town's 2014-15 budget.

And those are big questions that will be asked of the public at 6 p.m. Wednesday, as Clemson University consultants help the town map out the future of its swimming, soccer, baseball, senior center, crafts and other recreational offerings.

Opinions seem split so far.

Councilman Mark Smith said the town owes it to the taxpayers to see if its approximately $4.8 million deficit in the recreation area can't be closed, at least part way.

"I'm not saying we need to increase fees on anything or cut any programs," he said. "I think we need to go through the process to see what, if anything, we can do to close the gap.... Everything is on the table."

Councilman Gary Santos, who was honored for his recreation advocacy in 2005 by the S.C. Recreation and Parks Association, said the town's recreation programs have slipped during the previous four years while he was off council. After rejoining council last year, Santos said if anything, he wants to see the town offer more.

"Does the police department pay their own way? Does the fire department pay their own way? Of course not," he said. "They're all paid by the general fund. Why should recreation be any different?"

Should Johnny pay $50 or more?

Most parents pay $50 to sign their child up for baseball, soccer or another sport, and that fee is doubled if the family doesn't live in the town, Recreation Director Ken Ayoub said.

Adult athletics often pay a team fee of about $350 to $500, depending on the sport and season and how much the town expects to spend on referees and other supervision, he said.

"Generally, the registration fees, whether it's youth or adult, pretty much pay for the direct costs of the program," he said.

There's a lot they don't cover, including the cost of lighting, irrigation, field maintenance or additional personnel and administrative overhead. The town's rec department has 32 full-time employees and hires another 125 on a part-time basis.

About 44,000 adults and youths take advantage of the department's offerings, while the department's senior center has about 2,600 members. "And that doesn't count the number of people who use our facilities unscheduled, like a dad and son going out and tossing a ball," Ayoub said.

The extent of the town's subsidy varies by sport. While football is a big money-maker in high school and college athletics, it's a losing proposition financially for the town.

"Football is a very expensive program to have because of the jerseys and the number of officials we have," he added. "It generally runs a deficit whereas other programs make up that deficit."

The town hasn't raised its recreation fees for several years, when it began charging $50 instead of $38 for a season of youth sports. More recently, it increased the membership fee for the R.L. Jones Center Pool from $2 to $25 a year.

Ayoub said as far as he can tell, most residents are satisfied with the direction of the town's recreation programs and as far as possible fee increases, "they understand that we have to recover our cost as much possible."

Lance Brooks, a Mount Pleasant parent whose son plays baseball in the town's recreation league, said as long as the town maintains the program's quality, "we definitely would be willing to spend more. I just don't know the exact number."

Lauren Blake said she has joined the town's tennis center and its R.L. Jones Pool and thinks the town should offer a discount for joining multiple recreation sites.

"Even if it was just a few dollars," she said, "I would be more inclined to have yearly memberships at both facilities," and that could bring the town more money.

Area rec departments

No other large-scale city rec department in the Lowcountry seems close to breaking even.

In Charleston, the city hasn't raised recreation fees for city residents in about six years. It also spends about $7 million annually on recreation programs and staff, while it gets about $1.95 million in revenues, according to city figures.

The town of Summerville budgeted $2.23 million for its Parks and Recreation department this year, but its recreation-related income adds up to only $231,825, Finance Director Belinda Harper said. The balance comes from property taxes, business license fees and other revenue sources.

In North Charleston, the city's recreation budget adds up to about $6.5 million, while it receives about $330,000 back from fees, sponsorships and concession stand income, said T.J. Rostin, deputy director of the city's Recreation Department.

Mount Pleasant Town Administrator Eric DeMoura said the town's recreation program never will break even, and "that's why we collect taxes."

If the town were to raise its sports fees from $50 to $75 or even $100, then fewer might sign up, minimizing any revenue gain.

"The laws of economics say if you raise the price, you'll have less consumption of it," he added. "That's where the public policy decision has to come in - to decide whether that's a good thing or not."

Budgeting season

While the $7,500 consultants' report is expected to wrap up soon, Town Council likely won't start debating any recreation changes until May, as it pores over a new budget to take effect July 1.

And the discussion over recreation finances represents just part of a larger budget issue that council faces.

Next month, council is expected to take a final vote on raising property taxes, business license rates and stormwater fees - mostly to bring in more revenue for repairs and upgrades to road and drainage systems.

Smith has opposed those increases, partly because the council has not seen a draft of next year's budget. The current $60.8 million budget has a $6.3 million surplus.

While Smith said he is interested in seeing if recreation can do more to pay its own way, Santos said he would like to see the program expand. He noted the town has gotten rid of sailing, paintball and half-rubber and has privatized some other sports offerings by joining with local leagues who rent the town's fields.

"The programs where we have the best of the best compete with the best of the best around the state are no longer the town's programs," he said. "I don't need a consultant to tell me that in order for us to get back to where we were, we have to get those programs back under the town's purview and run them ourselves."

DeMoura said the broader picture is that the town's recreation department has offered "a very high level of recreation service, and it's wonderful," but it's no guarantee things will stay that way.

"Depending on what consultant says, council members either will choose to keep on keeping on or to change it, either fundamentally or drastically or just nibble around the edges," he said. "We'll see."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.