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Council seeks $5 million for park facilities and trails

Thursday, August 6, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

As it heads into next week’s budget hearings, City Council is searching for ways to add millions in programs and services to a proposed budget that is already nudging up against the 3.5 percent property tax increase cap Council committed to last month. Council members have identified four areas of need for the Parks and Recreation Department totaling $5.2 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

Council members Paige Ellis, Leslie Pool and Natasha Harper-Madison proposed the budget items, including $1.4 million for maintenance of the city’s 274 miles of trails, $1.5 million to hire park rangers, $1.5 million for expanded child care and virtual learning services at community recreation centers, and $800,000-$900,000 for repairs and maintenance at recreation facilities and athletic fields.

The backlog in trail and recreation facility maintenance existed prior to Covid-19, but the pandemic has led to a dramatic spike in daily trail system use and created an urgent need for safe, affordable child care options and remote learning facilities. According to Tom Visco, advocacy manager at Austin Parks Foundation, these funds are a way for the city to respond to the sharp increase in use and demand.

“The city has a lot of pressing needs this year,” Visco told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday. “This is a way to maintain the level of service that Austinites expect in our parks and on our trails. These asks wouldn’t take us above where we were at before Covid; they are going to help us keep the system in a serviceable place as the system experiences a lot more users.”

At the same time, City Manager Spencer Cronk and Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo warned Council that its commitment to a 3.5 percent property tax increase – the smallest percent increase in over a decade – is sure to make funding a bigger challenge than ever before.

Van Eenoo requested Council members follow the usual practice of identifying potential funding sources for each of the items in advance of Wednesday’s budget hearing.

Harper-Madison has suggested the $800,000-$900,000 for East Austin rec center repairs be funded by the roughly $6 million that would be saved by delaying the Austin Police Department’s November cadet class. Ellis has proposed the $1.5 million for 10 full-time and 14 seasonal park rangers be reallocated from the police operating budget by expanding park ranger enforcement capabilities and minimizing the need for armed park police.

Park rangers are currently only able to cite vehicles in city parks while sworn police are responsible for enforcing park rules against offenses such as littering, glass containers, off-leash dogs or public consumption of alcohol. Noting the demand for police reform, Ellis proposed that park rangers take on additional citation authority to relieve park police of the majority of these duties.

“I think many of the inappropriate issues that arise in our parks, things like littering – which as you can imagine is a much bigger issue with a lot more people in the parks – most of those issues don’t require the response of an armed, sworn law enforcement officer,” Visco said.

Managing expectations, Van Eenoo said any process that would involve civilianizing sworn functions could take many months to develop and would likely not be ready six months from now when Council may decide to meet for a midyear police budget review.

“That’s a major transition that requires us to start up or to add more park rangers,” Van Eenoo said. “We’d actually have to get those units stood up, get the positions hired, get the programs defined and that would just take longer-term.”

As schools prepare to reopen in some capacity this fall, Pool is proposing $1.5 million in ongoing costs to outfit six East Austin recreation centers as socially distanced educational locations, serving an additional 375 children with child care and learning opportunities.

“We have a lot of uncertainty around school reopenings,” Pool said. “We know schools will also, when they reopen, be at a lower capacity, so this is an excellent way for us to help our families with child care, also with learning and just as an additional public service when working from home is not possible.”

While public school buildings are closed or operating at reduced capacity, the educational programs would be open during typical school hours as well as the standard after-school hours. The new funds would serve to open programs at Dittmar, Dove Springs, Givens, Gus Garcia, Pan American and Turner Roberts recreation centers.

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