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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Parks Department struggles to keep up with demand for services
Wednesday, April 25, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano
Although the city as a whole seems to be in better financial shape than it has been in years, the Parks and Recreation Department is still struggling. PARD Director Sara Hensley presented her department budget to City Council last week, identifying $4.9 million and 42 full-time employees in unmet needs.
“We know there’s never going to be enough money. So for us, it’s all about how we recreate what we can do, and how we find what our core services are and how we work with other entities, non-profits and others, to keep them viable,” said Hensley.
At least one of the choices that the department made to work around rising costs and limited funds came under fire in the presentation. Council Member Kathie Tovo said that she was unhappy with some of the reductions that have taken place over the past year.
“One of the concerns that I’ve had is that there are some internal budget reductions that don’t really come before the Council for a discussion, but certainly impact our constituents, sometimes in very big ways,” said Tovo.
Tovo cited the reduction in summer youth programs that has occurred over the past year and noted that “a lot of the impacted recreation centers were on the east side.” She said she was concerned that some of the centers were being closed because the demand exceeded available resources. In other words, they were too popular.
This summer, the number of playground site outreach programs was cut from 26 to 16. Structured Drop In sites increased from one to seven. While the number of Summer Camp programs will remain the same, there will be a reduction in available registration slots.
Hensley told the Council that they had to make tough decisions in the middle of the year
“The bottom line is what’s happening is that it’s catching up to us . . . we have had years of stagnant budgets,” said Hensley. “Now we’re at a point where even when we have others we want to serve, we don’t have the ability to do that. We’re having to make the reductions to meet our budget.”
“Your department is under extreme stress. I don’t have a solution,” said Tovo. “But I really do want to have a fuller discussion about what the scarcity of resources is and what the impact is going to be on those communities. Because in a couple cases, again, I just want to emphasize, it wasn’t a lack of interest. It was the fact that there were so many children interested that they were exceeding the budget for that recreation center. So that means that there are lots of families at that center that are going to be impacted by the lack of programming this summer.”
Council Member Mike Martinez agreed, expressing confusion as to why some budget adjustments – he cited increased fuel costs – come before Council, while others are made administratively.
“For me, when I voted on the budget last September, I voted on a PARD budget that said x, y and z. If demand is exceeding costs, then that’s a decision that we have to make as a council, whether we want a mid-year budget adjustment to fill that demand or accept the cuts that are being proposed,” said Martinez.
“It depends on the circumstances,” said City Manager Marc Ott. “The clear cut answer is that once you’ve adopted the budget, obviously I have some prerogative to manage that… I will take steps, as I have in the past, to make adjustments to come back in line. When I’ve had to do that in the context of the entire budget, I’ve told you that I’ve had to do it, and I’ve told you how we were going to do it, so that you knew.
“It wasn’t something that necessarily required Council to take any action. It’s just part of the responsibility that I have as the City Manager and chief executive officer,” said Ott, who acknowledged that sometimes situations required more sensitivity.
“I don’t have a good explanation,” said Ott. “We need to do a better job of advising you all before we take those steps, particularly when they have the kind of programmatic and service implications that Council Member Kathie Tovo alluded to. All I can really say is that we are going to try and do a better job to communicate with you when we feel the fiscal stress of trying to maintain programs and services when their costs are significantly increasing.”
For now, Assistant City Manager Burt Lumbreras outlined a two-step plan, with discussion to take place in the next month to “really nail down the values” that Council wants to preserve in the strained parks budget. The second step will be to look at the programs and recommendations in that context.
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