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Parks board members call for better oversight of city’s bond spending

Friday, January 31, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Members of the Parks and Recreation Board lobbed criticism at the city’s Bond Oversight Commission over frustration that the group has canceled the majority of its meetings since late 2018 and failed to properly review the city’s use of bond dollars.

The comments came during a staff briefing Tuesday on the parks department’s capital improvement program for the coming years, which included details of how the department plans to use money from two 2018 bond proposals that, combined, brought in more than $215 million for improvements to parks facilities.

While making points about possible improvements to an online portal created by the city’s budget office to inform the public about ongoing projects, Board Member Rich DePalma said there has been a lack of proper oversight overall by the bond commission since voters approved a slate of bond proposals in November 2018.

“We need to revamp it. The majority of the meetings … January of this year, canceled. December, canceled. September, canceled. April, canceled. March, canceled. February, canceled. January, canceled. December of 2018, canceled,” he said.

“They’re not getting accountability across for all of our (capital improvement plans) to find out what that is. The one meeting I went to I wanted to see what’s been done with parks, and you have each department coming in and giving this useless overview. It was exceptionally bad. I recommend the city look at neighboring jurisdictions where you can look at an overview. I know we’re going to have another bond come up soon and it makes me really uncomfortable to advocate for it when we don’t see (accountability).”

While board members on the whole were complimentary of the job PARD staff has done to manage land acquisitions and improvement projects with limited funds, Board Member Francoise Luca joined DePalma in wanting more oversight of how the city uses capital dollars. She said delays in moving forward quickly on projects that were approved by funding more than a decade ago result in those dollars not going as far as originally intended.

“The other reality is land costs are going up dramatically and so our bond dollars don’t go as far for park acquisition if we wait so long to acquire the land,” she said. “So we’re always going to be behind in every category … we never seem to get ahead, so I hope more members of the public speak up about the lack of bond oversight.”

The parks board took no action related to the Bond Oversight Commission, and PARD capital improvement program manager Steven Linett is expected to present an update to that group at its meeting next month.

During his presentation, Linett said the parks department has 75 active construction projects at 50 locations across the city, and that a recent long-range planning process produced more than 300 capital project recommendations that will go into consideration for the next bond proposal that is expected for 2024.

The total cost for the department’s current five-year capital plan that ends in 2024 is $203 million, not including other money set aside specifically for land acquisition or for improvements made by parks conservancy groups.

Recently completed projects include improvements to the bathhouses at Shipe and Govalle pools and general improvements at Onion Creek Metro Park, Ricky Guerrero Park and Little Stacy Neighborhood Park.

Ongoing major construction projects include the Montopolis Recreation and Community Center, Colony Park District Park, and work to reopen the Zilker Café, a project that DePalma specifically mentioned was taking far too long to complete.

Linett said funds for parkland acquisition have more than tripled in recent years, with just over $13 million available this year compared to $3.9 million in 2016. The department has also benefited from an increase in historic preservation funds, which come from the city’s growing Hotel Occupancy Tax revenues. He said that pool currently has more than $13 million committed for projects such as the bathhouse at Barton Springs and restoration of the O. Henry Museum.

Photo of the Montopolis Recreation Center project courtesy of Google Maps.

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