Elsie Boylan feels good, she says, when she’s gliding through the water at the council-owned Ballyfermot Sports and Fitness Centre, where she goes for a swim early most mornings.
It keeps her supple, she says. “I go down, I love it. It sets me up for the day.”
She’s not the only one. Lots of swimmers in their 60s and 70s, and a handful of 80-year-olds, are usually there, says George Hynes, another regular.
There are those recovering from hip operations, knee operations, heart operations or strokes, says Boylan. “And after a few weeks, or a couple of months, they’ll be back to themselves again.”
But earlier this month, the Ballyfermot Sports and Fitness Centre bumped its fees for pensioners like Boylan, who then gathered outside the centre with hand-written signs to protest the increase.
Instead of just paying an administration fee of €20 for unlimited swims at off-peak hours, old age pensioners will have to pay either €15 a month or €2 per visit, to continue to use the pool and gym.
A council spokesperson said the centre’s income fell last year because of Covid, and that there are extra costs now to meet Covid-related safety rules.
Bríd Smith, a People Before Profit TD for Dublin South-Central, said Covid subsidies should cover the council’s losses for the centre.
“The country has spent literally tens of billions on subsidies on everything from businesses to airlines to workers to social protection throughout the pandemic,” Smith said.
Not-for-profit public amenities that are struggling because of the pandemic need to go back to the council, and the council to central government, and say they need more funding, she says.
“It’s not fair then to say to pensioners, we’re going to now take a few extra bob out of you because we lost funding during the pandemic,” she says.
Through the Grapevine
Ballyfermot Sports and Fitness Centre didn’t announce its new monthly fees, says Boylan.
She just heard what was going on from those whose memberships were up for renewal. “Through the grapevine,” she says.
When the centre first opened in 2008, it was free for old-age pensioners, she says, “to get them into the pool and into the gym, exercising to keep out of hospital”.
Later, the centre brought in a €20 administration fee. “Which we accepted,” she says.
But then, earlier this month, word went around that the fees would again be increased by a lot more than €20, she says. “We couldn’t believe it.”
Boylan organised the protest along with George Hynes. He has been going to the centre for a decade, he says, since he was 62.
“I go to keep myself fairly fit. For me personally, I’m fairly active. I love the swimming,” he says.
They’re doing a petition, says Boylan, and want to get more people out for a second protest on 15 September.
The new monthly fee includes fitness classes, which once cost extra. But Boylan says the group just wants the cost to go back to the way it was.
Most people aren’t interested in the classes on offer like yoga, pilates or spin, she says.
And “we could always avail of other classes if we paid extra”.
That’s not new, she says. “They seem to be making out that that’s a concession that they are giving us now.”
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said on Monday that the centre was closed for most of 2020 and, while now open, there’s more cleaning and inspections to do.
So income has been down and costs ramped up.
As a result, the council has “introduced a pay-as-you-go charge to use the service and a modest charge for people over 60 years is €2 per visit”, said the council spokesperson.
In 2019, the centre cost €1.4 million to run and entrance fees brought in €780,000, said the spokesperson.
In 2020, building maintenance and wages meant the centre cost €1.1 million for the year while income from entrance fees dropped to €256,000.
In a separate email, a council spokesperson said that all the council centres have charged the same during Covid times. “All the centres are charging €5 swim, gym or fitness class per visit or €2 for over 60yrs.”
The €15 per month rate came about when customers asked if there could be a flat rate, instead of paying €2 per visit, said the council spokesperson.
Also, the €20 charge for pensioners was a registration fee not a membership, they said,
“This fee covered swimming at off-peak hours but no access to swimming or other fitness classes.”
The council will be reviewing the pricing structure of the centres, they said, but cannot comment on whether there will be future price increases.
“However Dublin City Council believes sports and fitness should be inclusive and affordable to everyone in the community,” they said.
Setting the Price
It’s unaffordable for some, says Boylan. “€15 is a lot when you’ve been used to not paying anything. And especially with everything going up – gas and electricity and everything else.”
Paying for the fitness centre might mean having to cut back on something else, she says. “People actually even pay by the week, their bills into the post office, so they can manage whatever they’re left with.”
Many attendees of the leisure centre wouldn’t have private pensions, says Smith, the People Before Profit TD, who went to the protest on Wednesday.
They live on a basic income, she says. “And for their fee to go from €20 to €180 is pretty fucking hefty, by everybody’s standards.”
Hynes says that when people on a pension live alone, they have less money to spare than if they had more to share with someone else.
“It mightn’t sound much to people, a rise of €15 a month,” he says. “€15 is an awful lot of money of your little pension.”
Hynes says his family would be able to help him out, if the fees continue. “The majority of people are not in that situation, because they have no one.”
Boylan says she and others want the price to remain as is. She feels she has paid for her swims already, in taxes, throughout her life.
“It’s not a free swim. I don’t consider it a free swim. I’ve paid for it all through the years,” she says.
Boylan says she doesn’t think that other membership tiers should be increased instead either.
“I don’t think it should be either, because of the pandemic, we shouldn’t have to pay for the loss of revenue for the centre,” she said.