Admission prices for North Carolina’s three state aquariums will increase next year, part of an effort to help deal with state funding cuts and climbing health-care costs, according to officials with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
In a temporary rule filing, DENR proposed increasing admission prices by $2.95, most likely by March 1. Currently, admission costs $8 for adults 13 years of age and older, $7 for military members and seniors 62 or older and $6 for children ages 3 through 12. If approved, those rates would increase to $10.95, $9.95 and $8.95, respectively.
The increases will boost the ticket price 37 percent for adults and 49 percent for children 3 through 12.
School groups and children younger than 3 years old would still be admitted for free.
“We’d like to continue that tradition, because for many of the kids, that’s the only exposure they’ll get to an aquarium and museum,” said David Griffith, division director of the North Carolina Aquariums. “We want to keep that free, and try to excite them about the marine environment.”
Griffith wasn’t sure how much additional revenue the fee increases are expected to raise.
But he said he didn’t think they would cause a big drop in the number of people visiting the aquariums. For the areas where they are located, Griffith said, the aquarium admission fees will still cost less than other choices available to visitors.
The proposed increase is designed to offset both a dip in state funding and an increase in health-care costs due to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The aquariums lost $100,000 in state funding for the current fiscal year, a drop preceded by $4.25 million in cuts the previous two years. The legislature this year directed the aquariums to develop a plan to “become more financially self-sustaining.”
The funding shortage is compounded by a provision in the federal health-care legislation requiring employers of a certain size to provide health insurance for employees who work more than 30 hours per week. The three aquariums employ more than 50 temporary employees who work 11 months out of the year.
Reducing their hours to avoid providing health insurance would likely lead those employees to find other jobs, according to the filing. “To continuously hire new temporary employees ... would be unduly burdensome and cost-prohibitive,” the filing says.
Health insurance premiums for the existing temporary employees are expected to cost $3,000 per person.
Thought the temporary rule allows the fee increases to be put in place, they will still go through a formal approval process. Public comments on the matter can be sent until Jan. 9 to David Griffith, North Carolina Aquariums, 3125 Poplarwood Court, Raleigh, NC 27604.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a reporter for the Wilmington StarNews.