If you're acting like a business, then pay taxes like a business

Published: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 11:55 p.m.

I have read with interest letters about me and my company, Gainesville Health and Fitness Centers, concerning the Sun's recent YMCA "Fitness Feuds" article.

To set the record straight, a reporter from The Gainesville Sun contacted me after she discovered that private health clubs across the nation are challenging the YMCA's non-profit status.

The issue centers on the fact that YMCAs are abusing their tax-exempt status to build health clubs in high-income areas and are targeting affluent adults. The YMCA's clear focus on revenue has made them direct competitors with tax-paying health and fitness centers.

Because I am familiar with the issue, I voiced my opinion about the YMCA's new motivation. As a result, I've been accused of being anti-family, anti-children and afraid of competition.

Coming from a close family of two parents and seven brothers and sisters, I can assure you I totally support strong families. I also support programs for children. For years we have contributed to and worked with multiple organizations that serve the needy of Alachua County. This past year I have contributed to more than 175 different organizations, many of which have benefited children.

I have never asked for any kind of acknowledgement for the things we do in the area of helping children and mention them only now to dispute the unjustified claims that have been made against me.

Let me stress, that this is not a competition issue either. This is an issue of one of the largest "charities" in America behaving like a commercial business and using their tax-exempt status as a weapon to compete with businesses.

I have lived and worked in Gainesville for the last 30 years. I love this community and have taken pride in being a part of it. I feel I'm very fortunate to be in a business that I am passionate about.

In the 1970s, I started Gainesville Health and Fitness Center with three employees - people who are still with me. Over the years, I have watched as many health clubs go bankrupt. I have accepted thousands of memberships from those clubs so that no one would lose the money they had invested.

Today I have many members who have been with me since my first day in 1973 working as an instructor in the Steve Spurrier Health Spa. Through the years, I have never raised a member's dues. And today we have singles, couples and entire families as members.

Starting the business with $1700 and a 1,500 square foot facility, we have continually poured our profits back in to the business to better serve our members. Profits have not been what motivate us. Helping people improve the quality of their lives has.

To many people's surprise, I'm not against the YMCA being involved in fitness. The issue is not fitness. The issue is the Y calling itself a charity, then building health clubs in affluent areas across the country and ignoring the population that truly needs their service.

It is a true David versus Goliath. What most people don't realize, however, is that it is the YMCA who is the Goliath. Last year the YMCA brought in $4.1 billion (no that's not a typo). They made a profit of $349 million. How is that possible you ask? Again, it's because the new Ys are revenue-driven and target affluent adult clientele.

I don't believe that tax-paying families should be subsidizing every health club membership a charity sells to high income professionals, and since the Y doesn't pay property taxes (or any other taxes for that matter), this is exactly what happens. Selling fitness services to affluent adults is a commercial activity.

My position on this "Fitness Feud" is simple: If the Y is going to act like a business, they should pay taxes like a business.

Joe Cirulli is owner of Gainesville Health & Fitness Centers.

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