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Parkland dedication fee proposal raises questions

Wednesday, August 5, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

As the city’s Parks and Recreation Department gears up to propose an increase to its parkland dedication fee, local groups and City Council Member Sheri Gallo are questioning whether it’s the right fee for the department to be boosting.

The proposed hike comes in two forms: New developers must either dedicate land on which to build a park or pay a fee-in-lieu.

Legally, money obtained as part of the parkland dedication fee-in-lieu cannot be used to maintain parks – only to develop new ones. The system is in place to ensure that the city maintains a certain level of parkland in proportion to the city’s population; in the proposed change, that would be 9.4 acres per 1,000 residents.

“As we talk about adding more parkland and not having budgets to maintain the existing parkland we have, I think we need to be concerned about that conversation, too,” Gallo said to Council members at their work session Tuesday.

With an addition of roughly 95 acres of parkland developed in the last year, the department is asking for more than $300,000 of additional maintenance funding over the $14,436,795 required in 2014 to maintain city parks.

Since 2012, the price of maintaining parks has risen by nearly $3 million. The department pulls maintenance funding from the city’s General Fund, along with money from concert reimbursements, such as a portion of the ticket sales from the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

In its proposed budget for the coming year, the department estimates it will add 87 acres to the more than 20,000 acres of parkland it currently maintains.

Council is scheduled to set a public hearing for the proposed increases in parkland dedication fees at its meeting on Thursday. But Gallo asked Council members Tuesday to consider postponing the item.

“Because this would be a fee that would be increasing the cost of development and of construction and building … we did get some information back from some of the development community – RECA (Real Estate Council of Austin), the Board of Realtors, the homebuilders – that really would like to have a little bit more conversation about this before the public conversation is out there,” Gallo said.

In an email sent to Mayor Steve Adler, Council members and city staff, Eric Goff of the equity activism group AURA echoed Gallo’s concern about the department being able to ensure adequate maintenance of ever-increasing parkland.

“When we are already having a difficult time keeping pools open in the summer and funding our existing parks … building up a war chest that must be spent on new parkland without a mechanism to fund ongoing operations and maintenance will create a future unfunded mandate for Council – and more hard choices about whether we can maintain our pools,” Goff wrote Monday.

But Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Member Leslie Pool stressed moving forward with setting the public hearing. According to Planning and Development Division Manager Ricardo Soliz, the parkland dedication fee has not been reviewed since 2007.

“There’s been considerable change to the profile of the city in that time, so I certainly don’t think a review of the fees is undue,” said Pool. She said that there are several projects depending on the revenue from those fees. According to the city website, those include development of the South Austin Tennis Center and the Onion Creek Greenbelt.

Tovo said Council members should not feel pressed to postpone, because the item on Thursday’s Council agenda is to set a public hearing for some time in September – meaning, she said, Council members and stakeholders still have several weeks to ask questions and provide feedback.

Plus, she said, the development of this new fee structure has been brewing for some time.

“It’s been in progress for such a long time that I think it’s appropriate to hear it,” Tovo told the Austin Monitor.

Marilyn Lamensdorf, a senior planner with the Parks department, agreed that the city needs to find additional ways to fund maintenance – but that should be separate from Council’s and the public’s consideration of a new parkland dedication fee.

“Just because we don’t have money to maintain parks doesn’t mean we should stay at substandard levels,” she said.

Photo by Joe Mabel [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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