The Durango Parks and Recreation Department will not offer dance classes this winter for the first time since 1996, but city officials said the decision is unique and will not affect current or future partnerships between the city and private businesses.
Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz said it is common practice for recreation departments to hire independent contractors to conduct classes and programs instead of hiring full- or part-time staff. Throughout the year, there are 20 to 30 independent contractors offering numerous recreational programs including cooking, martial arts, gymnastics, kayaking and scuba diving. In addition, eight personal trainers who work at the rec center also are contracted, not employed, by the city.
Metz said there was resistance from the private sector when the rec center opened in 2000, especially from health clubs that saw the city facility as a direct threat to their existence. Since opening, Animas City Rock Gym and Fitness Works have gone out of business. But Fitness Works was part of the Days Inn, which closed entirely and has been converted into privately owned condominiums.
Criticism has been light since, but Dolph Kuss, Durango's first recreation director who held the job from 1954 to 1964, believes contracting services is not cost-effective and excludes poor families and children from participating.
"Those are commercial programs, and the rec program becomes a clearinghouse," he said.
Metz, however, maintains that the current policy is the best way to offer the most services at the best price. It would be impractical and unrealistic to hire specialized staff members with the training required to teach classes, she said, but by contracting such specialists it broadens the range of services the city offers.
"We're not excluding anybody because someone's already in the book," Metz said.
The classes also offer a way for the department to make some money. The recreational side of the Parks and Recreation Department operates at a taxpayer-funded deficit. In 2007, the latest year for which full data is available, the department recovered 81 percent of its expenditures through fees and memberships, with more than $194,000 subsidized from the city's general fund.
The subsidy is part of the department's annual budget, and funding comes from the 1999 voter-approved sales-tax increase that also pays for construction and maintenance of the Animas River Trail.
The city has no formal bidding process for park and rec contracts, but Metz said the city evaluates the credentials and services offered by those interested and performs background checks.
"How it happens is someone approaches us, expresses a desire to offer classes, and partner with the city to do it. From our side, it's more an analysis of their abilities, but (the Dance Center) is the first time that someone has had a concern with competition. We were hoping the displaced students could find somewhere else, but it got a little complicated."
In addition to private businesses, the city also contracts with several nonprofits, including the American Red Cross, Durango Discovery Museum and the Durango Arts Center.
Dance Center owner Lisa Bodwalk's concern was that the city was being asked to make capital improvements for her competitors. The city ultimately rejected the request.
Aside from the controversy during the rec center's first year, there have been no complaints from private operators protesting the city's policy. Kathy Curran has taught yoga in Durango for more than 20 years and has never partnered with the city. But she said she has no problem with those who choose to do so.
"I have friends who do it, and I think it's worked well for them. But I've been lucky, and I have a good customer base as it is," Curran said.
"They get the benefits of publicity and administration through the city, but they also have to give a portion to parks and rec. It's a tradeoff I don't choose to do, but no, I have no problem with that system."
If a contractor uses a city facility such as the rec center or the Mason Center, the contractor keeps 70 percent of the fees charged and pays the city 30 percent. If the activity takes place in the contractor's facility, the split is 80/20.
Kim Tucker, who purchased Splash Down Diving Adventures with her husband, Terry, in September 2007, said the couple inherited the city partnership, but they have been pleased with the results. Splash Down is the only scuba-diving certification school in Durango, so competition is not a problem. Tucker said the partnership has allowed the couple to take on more customers.
The Tuckers typically rent the pool at Fort Lewis College for private instruction, but the agreement with the city gives them access to the rec center pool as well, which for Kim Tucker is well worth the 70-30 split.
"Depending on class size, sometimes it's beneficial to them and sometimes to us, but overall it evens out and we can teach more people scuba. I think that's the biggest benefit," Tucker said.
Metz thinks it's unlikely that after nearly 10 years of success and positive feedback the city will change its policy anytime soon. She called the Dance Center brouhaha an anomaly that included miscommunication and personal disagreements. She does not foresee a similar situation arising again.
"We're trying to provide diverse recreation interests; some want sports, others want arts, but we just want people to be engaged, stay fit and age gracefully," Metz said.
"They do it for so many reasons, so we try to provide those opportunities as best we can."