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Council members struggle to expand funding for city’s park system

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Council members took turns Monday appropriating a total of $4.75 million in FY2014 Parks and Recreation budget dollars requested by an advocacy group over the past several weeks. In the end, however, the funding may be subject to phasing – and initial reductions – due to broader budgetary needs and limited funds.


Parks Director Sara Hensley and her staff are charged by Council members with coming up with phases for each of four thus-far-approved categories of new parks funding. Council members could use that work to help offset additional expenditures now included in the final budget.


A vote on the matter is set for this morning.


Council members worked from a schedule prepared by city staff Friday. There, the $4.75 million was broken into four categories: general maintenance, pools, trails, and forestry.


Monday, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole moved first. She called for $1 million in general maintenance funding for the city’s parks. Cole said that, though it is difficult to prioritize parks needs, “I think the primary problem that we have with our parks now is maintenance.


“We are just not able to keep them up and people are beginning to voice concerns about using them,” Cole continued. “So we need to protect that investment.”


Cole also called for more “performance measures in connection with our parks.”


Her motion was approved via consent.


Council Member Laura Morrison then brought up $1 million to help keep city pools open longer. “The critical need to have our pools open as a gathering place for our youth over the summer is clearly evident and even more so because of the drought that we are seeing,” Morrison said. “The other thing is that our pools are aging, and this is a very realistic and necessary investment to be able to keep our pools open these hours.”


This was met with some skepticism from Council Member Mike Martinez. “If we allot $1 million for additional pool hours are we certain that we can actually open the pools longer?” he wondered, citing the return of employees to their studies “and things of that nature.”


Hensley told Martinez that the money could well keep some parks open. “I believe we can do some, yes,” she said. However, Hensley also suggested that the city would also need to pay for mechanics.


“It doesn’t help us to have any life guards and we can’t keep (pools) open,” Hensley said.


Martinez ended up voting for the item. Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who offered a near blanket “no” on funding additions, voted against it. He was the only one.


Council members later reduced the pools figure on a motion from Martinez. Should the number remain – at $855,000 – the rest of the amount would go toward the Mexican American Cultural Center’s artist in resident program.


By the time the questions of the $1.25 million for the city’s trail system and $1.5 million for urban forestry upkeep came around, it was clear that Council members may not have enough money to deal with the advocates’ proposal in the FY2014 budget. Indeed, though there are now placeholders for all the parks items – $855,000 for pools, $500,000 for urban forestry, $1.25 million for trails, and $1 million for general maintenance – Hensley and her team are likely to produce somewhat different figures in time for this morning’s meeting.


As the tone of Council members’ discussion became more concerned, and the dollars waned, Morrison reminded her colleagues that Hensley and company would return today with updated figures. “We have asked the parks director to come back to us with ways that we can put different values in for parks,” Morrison said.


Later, she added that she “fully expect(s) the revised parks numbers and other things” to account for any budget shortfall.

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