Harrison’s summer day camp a ‘phenomenal’ program

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

HARRISON — A recent discussion about Harrison’s Summer Recreation Day Camp program at the Board of Selectmen’s Feb. 26 meeting made one thing very clear — the parents who enroll their children in the eight-week camp at Crystal Lake Park are getting an incredibly great deal for their money.

That’s because Harrison is one of the few towns in Maine, if not the only town, that still subsidizes its summer recreation program, through taxpayer dollars. Last year, $39,000 of the recreation department’s annual $179,000 budget was paid by taxpayers to subsidize the summer day camp. Parents paid fees of $195 per child for the eight weeks, $185 for each additional sibling. Around 115 children attended.

“That’s, what, around $25 a week?” an amazed Selectman Richard Sykes told Rec Director Paula Holt. “Oh, that’s a pretty good deal. There’s people who pay $25 a night for a babysitter.” Added Selectman Matt Frank, “It’s a phenomenal program you have. It’s cheap at any price.”

Financial benefits notwithstanding, the “Fun, Friends & Fitness” summer camp should not ever be likened to babysitting, said Holt. For that $25 a week, from June 22 to Aug. 13, children entering Grades 1 through 7 in the fall receive three weeks of swim lessons, canoe/kayak lessons, a summer reading program at the nearby library, nutrition workshops, crafts, games, gym sports and a tie dye T-shirt. An additional fee is charged for optional field trips to amusement parks and other attractions. Expanded arts and crafts offerings, as well, are planned for this summer.

Compare that with Naples’ KidVenture Summer Camp at the town hall gym, where a five-day week, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., including 2½ days of field trips but not swim lessons, costs $805 for seven weeks, according to Naples Rec Director Harvey Price. Lesser fees are paid for partial-week or partial-session options, but there is no taxpayer subsidy. And the parents must also pay $40 a week for before-and-after child care. Price said last year there were 46 children enrolled, of which nine paid for the full weekly sessions.

As far as other area towns go, many of them don’t even offer a summer day camp, but instead offer swim lessons and other individual summer-related programs.

If Harrison’s summer camp program weren’t impressive enough on its own, consider that it works closely with the Harrison Kids School Age Child Care Enrichment Program, or HaKi SACC. This allows parents to drop off their kids at 6 a.m. at the fire station for creative play and snacks before being walked down to the park for the 9 a.m. start of summer camp. When camp ends at 3 p.m., the children return to HaKi SACC for another three hours until their parents pick them up at 6 p.m.

Model program

The summer program has evolved greatly since Holt became Rec Director in 1996. Back then, the eight-week session cost only $35 a week, but it didn’t have nearly the variety and breadth of offerings the children now enjoy. In recent years, increases in the program fee have been modest, she said, around $5 or $10 a year.

Holt said she’s listened closely to all the recent talk at the municipal level about proposed elimination of state revenue sharing, and the impact that would have on the town’s budget, which already takes a big hit trying to compensate for education costs that make up over 60% of the total tax burden. So this year she’s thinking about increasing the camp cost by around $25, to $225 for eight weeks, or another $3 per week. The extra revenue will go into the general rec budget.

Holt wanted to know if selectmen would support an increase, and most of them agreed, especially after Holt explained that scholarship help is available, particularly to parents wanting to enroll more than one child. The camp is for Harrison children only, but she does take in kids from other towns as space allows, at a fee of $100 a week, or $800 for the summer.

Selectman Kathy Laplante, although in support of the program, didn’t like the idea of increasing the camp fee. “Our residents already pay taxes, and shouldn’t they get something for their taxes?” she asked. “That’s why they pay taxes. I don’t think it’s right to ask them for more money.”

Holt said that without the $39,000 town subsidy, she would have to charge parents $150 a week to pay her staff. The camp has 18 paid staff, both full- and part-time, which is a bare minimum, given rec guidelines of a 12-to-1 ratio of staff to kids for an outside environment.

“I can’t cut that staff,” said Holt, saying she runs with a skeleton crew as it is, whose pay at $9 an hour is less than the $10–$11 an hour paid by many other towns.

Laplante said she didn’t think parents using the summer camp should have to “cover the costs we’re losing from revenue sharing or any other place.” She said a large proportion of the rec department’s total $179,000 budget last year went to salaries, and perhaps Harrison should look at cutting back on the program’s hours and staffing requirements instead of increasing fees.

“The program is great — I’m concerned about the money,” Laplante said.

The majority of the board felt the increase was fair, given the already generous subsidy and the fact that the increase was only being charged to the parents using the program, and not to all taxpayers.

“We’ve got a proposal to increase the money coming from a source other than us,” said Frank. “It’s a tremendous advantage to have a first-class program for our kids.”


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