The Westport Parks and Recreation Commission is requesting public comment on the priorities, fees and funding structure for the town's parks and recreational facilities.

We believe attractive parks and recreation facilities are one of the main reasons people move to and stay in Westport. With 200-plus acres of open spaces, and parks -- many of them near the water and all public -- we offer a unique set of resources to the community.

However, much of our community is not aware that the Parks and Recreation Department operating budget is almost entirely funded by user and permit fees. This means that most of the costs of maintaining 15 parks, three beaches, four tennis facilities (24 courts), a world-class public golf club, two marinas, a swimming pool complex, 12 athletic fields and 100-plus recreational programs are not paid for by taxes, but rather by fees.

For example, last fiscal year 93 percent of the Parks & Recreation operating budget was paid for by fees. This means that our beach passes, and hand emblems are paying for our parks and athletic field maintenance.

This is a significant change from previous years when the town subsidized at least 15 percent of the operating budget, and vastly different from other towns in Fairfield County that fund their parks and recreation facilities through local taxes. Other towns use fees to pay for capital improvements rather than operating expenses.

And, even though our fees are generating enough revenue to pay for 93 percent of the operating expenses, because of tightening budgets we have still had to reduce services.

The primary reason for this reduction is that the Parks and Recreation revenue flows to the town's general fund. This means that in future years under a scenario where revenues exceed expenses, the surplus would not necessarily flow into Parks and Recreation facilities.

This creates an unfortunate situation where we are unable to establish long-term reinvestment plans for some of the town's most precious assets such as the Longshore Club Park, beaches, marinas, etc. The longer these maintenance investments are delayed, the more costly the repairs may be. And, we will begin to see a deterioration in our parks, fields and beaches.

The commission has identified a set of 2010-11 priorities that are designed to complement the goals reflected in the Westport 2007 Plan of Conservation and Development. While we believe all these priorities are crucial, we recognize that our ability to implement them will depend on budget dollars, manpower, and our ability to generate revenue.

We want our priorities and funding strategies to reflect the needs of our community, so we are asking you to review the draft 2010-11 Parks and Recreation Commission Plan document, now online, www.westportct.gov/agencies/parksandrecreation, and provide us with your feedback.

In addition, we would like you to submit your opinion about how we should fund our Parks and Recreation facilities -- through fees, taxes, and/or through commercial opportunities such as advertising and sponsorships. And, please let us know if you have any thoughts on the 93 percent fee-to-cost ratio.

Also, please keep in mind that, while funding parks and recreation through user fees helps keep property taxes lower, those fees, unlike property taxes, are not tax deductible. Fees are fully taxed dollars.

You can provide your input either by attending our next Parks and Recreation Commission meeting or by sending us an e-mail at parksreccommission@westportct.gov.

This is an important issue because we believe that Westport's Parks and Recreation resources play a significant part in enhancing the quality of life for Westport residents of all ages.

Janis Collins is chairman of the Westport Parks & Recreation Commission. She can be reached at parksreccommission@westportct.gov