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Letter protests subsidies for YMCA building

January 31, 2000|By SCOTT BUTKI

Washington County Commissioners John L. Schnebly and Paul L. Swartz say a letter from a private gym urging the County Commissioners not to help pay for the new Hagerstown YMCA may have some merit.

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"Why should this place, which is going to build an $8.8 million facility, ... why should they get public money to compete with me," Eric P. Easton, principal operator and partner of Gold's Gym in Hagerstown, asked in a phone interview Wednesday.

Schnebly and Swartz said they plan to bring up Easton's argument during Tuesday's meeting of the County Commissioners when a proposed capital improvement program is discussed. The first public draft of the program calls for the county to give $250,000 a year for three years to help the YMCA pay for its new building.

The money was placed in the budget documents but the County Commissioners have not voted on its inclusion in the budget.

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In a Dec. 15 letter to the commissioners, Easton wrote, "As a taxpaying member of the business community, I respectfully ask that you not only deny the request for YMCA funding but review the YMCA's tax-exempt status."

None of the commissioners said he plans to pursue the tax-exempt argument, but Swartz said Easton may have a point about the nonprofit YMCA gaining an unfair advantage over other businesses.

"They are in that particular business and if the county promotes one business over another it becomes questionable," Swartz said.

"I think there are some strengths to that argument," Schnebly said. "Certainly from my standpoint I want to reflect about that philosophically."

However, Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said Thursday that the YMCA's main focus is youth.

"The commissioners need to be cognizant of that fact," Snook said. "I understand his point but I don't think they are competing."

Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger, who is on the YMCA board of directors, disagreed with Easton's argument and noted that the YMCA has a policy not to refuse membership even to people who can't afford the standard fees.

"I don't think the true health clubs can provide services to youth," Iseminger said. "To me, it is a whole different structure."

Commissioner William J. Wivell said he agrees with Easton that the YMCA shouldn't get funding, at least from the capital program budget, but for a different reason: The county can't afford it.

"It doesn't make sense to increase funding to nonprofits when we are having trouble funding school construction," Wivell said. "It's not a necessity."

YMCA Executive Director Michael Flicek said the YMCA has served the community for more than 100 years and would appreciate any money the county can give.

Easton said he's not alone among gym operators in his opinion.

"I have spoken with numerous local health club owners who are in favor of a new YMCA and who support the programs that the Y offers the community," Easton wrote. "However, these same citizens are concerned for their businesses when the new Y opens."

The YMCA should not get an advantage simply because it is a nonprofit charitable organization, he said. He said Gold's Gym has given out more than $20,000 in donations to local schools.

The YMCA has about 4,000 members. That is expected to increase to 5,000 at the new facility, which will be large enough to accommodate up to 10,000 members, Flicek has said.

"All of the health clubs within a 25-mile radius, combined, might be able to accommodate 10,000 members. Potentially, the Y could wipe out all those private clubs and wipe out all the tax revenue with them," Easton wrote.

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