The Garden City Telegram
2/14/2014
OPINIONS AND COMMENTARY

Fitness club bill — An unhealthy attack on nonprofits

A Kansas businessman has flexed his financial muscle in an attempt to give his fitness clubs an edge.

And by pumping funds into many state lawmakers' campaign coffers, fitness club entrepreneur Rodney Steven may indeed see enough of a return on his investment to push through his request for a healthy tax break.

Steven has in the past sought legislation granting for-profit health facilities in Kansas a property tax break to address what he sees as competition with YMCA and other nonprofit fitness organizations. The president of Wichita-based Genesis Health Clubs says he only wants a level playing field.

It's a ridiculous argument, as is the thinking of Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita.

"The majority of what they (YMCAs) do is in direct competition with the private sector," Brunk reportedly said.

Brunk and others who believe as much should realize that while nonprofit organizations such as the Y offer fitness facilities, they give much more in their communities than the for-profit operations.

Consider the Garden City Family YMCA and the Garden City Recreation Commission. Both organizations embark on numerous positive endeavors that go well beyond exercise and fitness, with child-care services and organized youth activities among many good programs that make the community a better place to live.

They make the most of partnerships with schools, hospitals, governments, churches and health departments, among others. The YMCA offers free and discounted services to low-income residents and seniors.

Owners of private health clubs cannot claim the same far-reaching, positive impact.

Still, Steven's bid appears to be gaining momentum among lawmakers eager to sign off on unwarranted tax breaks — the same ultraconservative Republicans who scaled back income taxes for wealthy Kansans, while increasing the tax burden for the poor in our state. Keep in mind, Steven already received a nice deal as a beneficiary of the recent income-tax cut legislation.

The additional tax break he covets also would create a slippery slope as other exercise-related enterprises — private golf courses and swimming pool facilities, for example — might expect the same. Local governments and school districts that rely on property taxes cannot afford more hits.

To make matters worse, a separate bill in the Kansas Legislature also would target YMCAs by forcing them to pay sales and property taxes. The proposed legislation would redefine "humanitarian services" so organizations that make more than 40 percent from the sale of memberships or services would no longer qualify for sales and property tax exemptions.

Again, operators of private fitness clubs argue YMCAs somehow have an unfair advantage over their private, for-profit businesses. Yet business operators have made the decision to set up shop in communities with YMCAs, and many for-profit fitness clubs thrive in the midst of such "competition."

Many YMCAs already struggle to make ends meet. Members who pay full price help subsidize those who can't.

"This will have a huge effect on what we can provide," Chad Knight, local YMCA chief executive officer, said. "I encourage anyone to review our numbers and see the value of the scholarships, free programs and the volunteer work being done. You will be amazed. I truly believe the YMCA is a tax benefit to the community, not a liability."

Passage of the legislation Knight and others rightly fear would force YMCAs to cut programs many families depend on — for example, after-school and day-care programs, the kind of offerings that benefit low-income residents in particular.

But what else is new? GOP ultraconservatives in Kansas, after all, have pursued an unprecedented course of punishing the disadvantaged in the state — and appear to be intent on finding new ways to do so.

Lawmakers should rein in the reckless crusade of senseless tax policies. Penalizing YMCAs, recreation commissions and the people they serve would be yet another step backward in Kansas.

Email Editor-publisher Dena Sattler at denas@gctelegram.com.