COMMITTEE ON PARKS AND RECREATION
PROPOSED INT. 856-2015
OCTOBER 2, 2015
HON. MARK D. LEVINE, CHAIR
Good afternoon, I am Mark Levine, Chair of the Committee on Parks & Recreation.
At today’s hearing we will focus on Int No. 856, a bill that I am proud to be co-sponsoring with Council Member Eric Ulrich, Chair of the Committee on Veterans. This bill will require the Parks Department to discount membership fees at its recreation centers for veterans and for persons with disabilities.
The Parks Department has operated recreation centers since the turn of the 20th century. They are a hallmark of the progressive history of this City, and a symbol of our commitment to providing high quality recreational opportunities for all of our residents. Today, the department operates 35 of these centers throughout the 5 boroughs, and last year these facilities collectively received nearly 3.5 million visits.
Our city’s public rec centers offer a wide array of services, including indoor pools, weight rooms, basketball courts, dance studios, boxing rings, art studios, game rooms, after-school programs and even libraries. They serve as important spaces for New Yorkers of all ages to come together for exercise, health living, social engagement, and more.
Rec centers are especially important to two classes of New Yorkers: veterans and people with disabilities--groups which of course often overlap. And for each, facilities such as swimming pools and weight rooms can offer important venues for the kind of exercise regimen which is required for either rehabilitation or maintenance of long-term health.
Rec centers also give veterans and people with disabilities important opportunities for social interactions with their neighbors, overcoming the kind of isolation caused by physical or emotional impediments which is all too common in these populations.
Veterans and people with disabilities face rates of poverty and unemployment which are higher than for the population as a whole, making it difficult for them to pay the annual fee for joining our rec centers. This has especially been true since 2011 when the Parks Department nearly doubled the fee to $150 per year. Meanwhile private health clubs or YMCAs are even farther out of reach, with annual fees that can total $800 in more.
The economic challenges facing veterans in New York City are all too real. The Food Bank of NYC recently reported that 70,000 vets in in the five boroughs (nearly 30% of the total vet population), relied on soup kitchens and food pantries last year.
And for New Yorkers with disabilities, the poverty rate is greater than 30%--more than double the rate for the general population in the five boroughs.
It is for all these reasons that we have proposed intro 856, which would mandate at least an 80% discount on rec center memberships for veterans and people with disabilities.
There is precedent for such discounts. In recent years the Parks Department has created low-cost tiers for both seniors and young adults, groups which now pay just $25 per year for memberships. Veterans and people with disabilities should have access to the same low rate.
The symbolism of providing this benefit to our veterans is particularly powerful. These New Yorkers chose to put on a uniform to serve our nation, knowing the physical danger that might entail, and in fact, many have returned home facing the challenges of physical injuries and mental and emotional distress. We owe them every form of support we can offer, and certainly that includes access to the resources of our city’s recreation centers.
It is important to note that while all our rec centers are at least partly accessible to people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices, there are areas within many of our centers which are not yet accessible. We place great priority on accelerating the pace of accessibility upgrades at these and all parks facilities. And I am proud that this year we passed Local Law 73, which will require robust reporting by the Parks Department on its progress towards achieving universal accessibility.
I look forward to discussing today’s legislation, Intro 856, with the administration, my colleagues, and all the advocates who have come to testify.