Tuesday, July 2, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Parks working group to look for new revenue options

The city’s parks board is set to look for new ways to fund the needs of the city’s parks system, in an attempt to deal with anticipated tight city budgets as a result of coming caps on revenue enacted by the state.

Last week’s meeting of the Parks and Recreation Board saw unanimous passage of a resolution from Board Member Nina Rinaldi to create a working group to examine alternative sources of revenue for parks uses. That group, which includes Rinaldi and Board members Rich DePalma, Romteen Farasat and Dawn Lewis, is expected to hold its first organizational meeting by the beginning of August.

Rinaldi said she made the resolution because of concerns the city won’t be able to commit any money to roughly $600 million in deferred maintenance needs in future budget years. In the recent past, Parks and Recreation’s deferred maintenance figure has been closer to $700 million.

Rinaldi said growing concerns over basic maintenance as well as needed improvements have made it necessary to look at how other cities fund their parks needs, with increased partnerships with parks conservancies and foundations as well as private funding among the options.

“We’re aware that there are already all these partnerships with various conservancies that happen, and we need to look at how to best make use of the money that parks does receive,” said Rinaldi, who works as the operations manager for the Shoal Creek Conservancy. “When we’re on the board we hear from residents wanting to know why bathrooms haven’t been fixed or the grass in a park hasn’t been mowed, and there are lots of things that are rolled up in that (deferred maintenance) number.”

The city’s current-year budget suggested just over $100 million in operating expenses for the city’s parks. The working group will likely reach out to local conservancies and foundations as well as current vendors for the parks department to examine ways to increase revenue.

Rinaldi said another option is a suggestion by DePalma to examine creating a separate taxing district for the parks, much like that of Central Health or a local school district, which would then be able to hold elections to establish property tax levies to pay for maintenance and operations.

DePalma said he and other parks board members have been considering alternative revenue scenarios for parks maintenance since the last recession ended eight years ago, with property taxes one of his preferred solutions. He said City Council’s vote to improve its parkland dedication ordinance has made it easier to create new parkland, but doesn’t provide for growing maintenance needs.

“We could also look at a fee on your utility bill, or something in terms of ad valorem taxes and other fees that can make up for the fact there’s really nothing when it comes to maintenance and operations,” he said. “When you look at the city and the amount of facilities under their care, no one can come close to parks in terms of the number of assets. But for them there’s no reliable stream of other revenue like you see for the convention center or the airport.”

DePalma said he’s worked closely with Council members Jimmy Flannigan and Alison Alter on parks issues before and expects that Council will take up a resolution later this summer to make the working group an official city task force, which would make city staff and other resources available.

“We need to hear from experts inside and outside of Austin and look at all the possibilities we can bring to Council, because it won’t be as simple as ‘Here’s the magic elixir to fix everything,’” he said. “Most of the Council is on vacation now and I would expect when they get back by the end of the month and get into what the next budget will look like, we’ll be hearing from some of them to talk about what we can do.”

Photo by smallcurio made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.

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