Lakes Area Recreation, which offers more than 20 sports programs to area youth and adults, has been operated for decades under a joint powers agreement between Alexandria School District, the city of Alexandria, and Alexandria and LaGrand townships.
Last week the LAR board met to discuss plans to dissolve the joint powers and bring LAR operations under the district’s community education program.
Several board members stated that they saw the move as a positive one, with little to no effect on the public.
“We would hope there would be very little disruption in how the public reacts to our programs,” said Alan Zeithamer, an Alexandria School Board member who has also served for more than 20 years on the LAR board. He anticipates no changes to LAR staff or programming, and raised the possibility of additional offerings down the road.
Jeff Oberg of Alexandria Township, chairman of the LAR board, called the plans primarily a governance change.
“We have been very careful to review current programs and make certain they will remain intact,” he said, noting that the board has researched various scenarios to ensure that the change will be positive for community recreation.
Alexandria City Council member Todd Jensen, who also sits on the LAR board, said they looked at other operation models.
“When the school district stepped up and offered (to bring it under community ed), it seemed like the best thing,” he said. “Realistically, if we do this right, it should be very seamless.”
Sign of times
While Lakes Area Recreation was formed in 1989 as a nonprofit organization between the two townships, the city and school district, board members say that model is not the norm.
“We’ve seen recreation programs can be handled in different ways,” Oberg said.
“Joint powers were pretty unique. I don't know there were that many of them,” Zeithamer said, noting that they are shrinking as other areas have dissolved joint powers agreements.
“Willmar is an example that comes to mind, where they disbanded that (agreement) recently. The city and school district are still involved in recreation, but in different ways,” he said.
LAR Director Fritz Bukowski, who came on board 10 years after the joint powers model had been established, said it is fairly common in Minnesota for community education programs to be in charge of community recreation.
A lot of things were driving the decision to bring community recreation back to the schools, Zeithamer said. Historically, many recreation facilities belonged to schools and consequently many rec programs were handled by the school, he said.
“Right now the school, through community ed and other mechanisms, does a lot of the scheduling on a lot of their own facilities,” Jensen said.
Zeithamer suggested this may be a sign of the times, since most community programming is done through school districts. Indeed, he believes the Alexandria School District started this area’s first community rec program back in the 1950s.
He stressed that if this all goes according to plan, no money from the district’s general fund would be used to support the recreation program. The funding would come out of Fund 4, which comes from the state to fund community education. It does not include any funds from local property taxes.
“Fund 4 is a completely separate fund from our general fund. There's very very clear distinctions and separations,” Zeithamer said. “We don't even raise taxes for Fund 4.”
Currently, about three-fourths of Lakes Area Recreation’s funding is generated by program fees and building rentals, and less than a quarter of it comes from contributions from the city, townships and school district. That is a very low amount for a joint-powers arrangement, Oberg observed. Zeithamer said the split is often closer to 50 percent, and is hopeful the partners will continue to contribute to the area’s recreation program.
Over time, he believes, some operations could become streamlined, since community ed and LAR both handle registrations, for example. Volunteers will still be a vital part of all of the programs, which include more than 1,500 participants in youth gymnastics and several hundred in swimming and baseball. It offers a host of other sports, including camps, and an indoor playground, Shenanigans.
As for the city, Jensen, who is vice chairman of the LAR board, said its recreation contributions are substantial in comparison to other cities, from the bike trails to the Runestone Community Center. He also raised the idea of converting some tennis courts at City Park to pickleball courts.
“I don’t think we’re looking at backing off on our commitment to recreation at all,” he said. “This is going to allow the city, I believe, to look at helping out in other areas.”
Currently, LAR is in charge of lifeguards for the public beaches on Lake Latoka and Lake L'Homme Dieu during the summer months. The plan is for that to shift to the city’s responsibility. Jensen said that LaGrand township had covered the costs for Latoka beach, while the city and Alexandria township split it for L'Homme Dieu.
The subcommittee of Jensen, Oberg, Zeithamer and Kelly Beilke of La Grand Township also met last week with Tom Jacobson, the city’s attorney, to rewrite the joint powers agreement. If the LAR board approves the wording at its Sept. 26 meeting, it would then go before all four entities.
The switch would become official on Jan. 1.
"The same quality programs will continue to be offered,” Bukowski said.
“What we're doing is for the benefit of recreation to the community,” Jensen said. “There is nothing detrimental to it.”