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Parks and Recreation Board questions cost of the Trail of Lights

Thursday, May 21, 2009 by Michael Mmay

The Parks and Recreation Department has been asked to cut its budget by 4 percent in 2010 – on top of the 4 percent it had to cut from this year’s budget.  And at last night’s meeting, the Parks and Recreation Board members were faced with a difficult choice: cut staff or figure out a way to minimize the cost of the Trail of Lights and other community events.


To meet the budget this year, the department froze 24 positions, cut office supplies, travel and equipment costs, and reallocated some in-house improvement projects. In order to meet the budget in 2010, they will have to permanently eliminate those 24 positions. The department is in the process of determining where the cuts will be made, but all the board members agreed that the department couldn’t afford to lose any more staff. “I hate to bring up the Barton Springs trees again,” said Board Member Danette Chimenti. “But we are already so understaffed we can’t maintain the trees, and we saw how that played out.”


But with most of the department’s budget being spent on staff, it’s not easy to find other places to cut. And so the discussion turned to the Trail of Lights, which PARD director Sara Hensley admitted “costs a lot of money, and we don’t have it.”


Hensley said the annual event costs the department around $800,000 to put on, even after deducting the $250,000 or so it collects in revenue. “Most of the cost is setting it up and cleaning the park afterward,” she said. “And while the staff is doing that, meanwhile parks aren’t getting mowed, and facilities aren’t getting fixed.” She added that the problem is compounded because the companies that sponsor the event, like Dell, are contributing less this year.


Chair Linda Guerrero said, “We don’t want to look like Grinches. This needs to be delicately handled.” But the reality was clear, the Parks and Recreation Department won’t be able to bear the costs of the Trail of Lights on its own. The city describes the Trail of Lights Festival on its website as “a wonderland of light painted on the canvas of nature. This annual holiday tradition is celebrated in Austin’s beloved Zilker Metropolitan Park.” USA Today has named it in the Top Ten Holiday Lightings. Originally known as Yule Fest, the Trail of Lights began in 1965.


Board Member Chimenti said it was time to go public with their concerns. “We need to start charging for the event,” she said, “or find a foundation to take over.”  Hensley thought maybe the department could contract out the work. “So the people doing it aren’t also trying to do five other jobs. And we are dealing with antiquated lights and sets, so it’s not easy to assemble.” She said the energy costs could come down by replacing the display with LED lights, which is not likely to happen this year.


The board also took a look at a related drain on their budget: fee waivers. The City Council has waved around $1 million annually in park fees for various events. The board discussed ways to control those costs, such as finding ways for the events to be more self-sufficient. Hensley also said she was looking at how the department could save by partnering with the private sector, such as working with a retail store or coffee shop that could provide amenities at the new boat house. Hensley said those kinds of partnerships can provide services at the parks, without staff or other resources being drained.

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