The county’s Public Works and Parks departments merge
The County Department of Parks, Open Spaces, and Cultural Centers became an orphan last month after the Board of Supervisors chose not to replace retiring director Joe Schultz.
The decision was part of their plan to erase a $14.7 million deficit for fiscal year 2011-12—a General Fund hole mostly gouged by the sudden disappearance of $12 million in Redevelopment Agency (RDA) funds at the stroke of Gov. Jerry Brown’s pen. Nerves were running high as Public Works Director John Presleigh worked 16-hour days the last week of June, learning as much as possible about Parks’ operations, which he will now be overseeing.
County parks were already in a state of financial contraction before losing their share of state redevelopment funds, which would have been more than a half million dollars this year. Those funds were being used to maintain a skeleton staff that simply opened bathrooms and emptied trashcans in Live Oak and Soquel, while badly needed maintenance has been pushed down the road year after year. The newest round of cuts has led to layoffs of almost one-fifth of the engineers at Public Works and a to-be-determined number of administrators in Parks.
“A few years ago Parks had over $3 million, now it’s down to $2.4 [million], so you’re going to see a natural reduction in the workforce,” Presleigh says. “It’s unfortunate. [RDA money] did so much for the Live Oak and Soquel areas … parkways, and libraries, and a pool. You’ll never be able to replace that.”
Parks Maintenance Manager Gretchen Ilif says that her crews have been largely untouched by reductions this year. Funds are tight, though, leading them to focus on a handful of small projects that can be done to make more parks and facilities safer and more accessible to county residents.
“We don’t really have a lot of money in the budget for a lot of big projects next year,” she says.
County Supervisor John Leopold, who represents most of the area where RDA money had been spent echoes Ilif’s feeling about projects going undone, but says he is hopeful that by adjusting their goals, the county will be well served.
“There is a huge deficiency of parks in the redevelopment area,” says Leopold. “We’re not going to be in a building mode, we are going to be in a maintenance mode.”
Repairing the roof of the Burt Scott Estate near Scott County Park in Watsonville is high on Ilif’s priority list. There is only a tarp covering the building right now, which was recently given to the county. Repaving the parking lot at the heavily used Brommer Street Park on 30th Avenue is another deferred project she hopes will get done this year.
“Because [those] repairs are minor, we are more readily able to find funding for that park,” says Ilif. “[But] as a whole, the parks department is in need of deferred maintenance.”
She points to the 13-year-old Simpkins’ Family Swim Center, which already has cracks in the cement and needs new roofing, to show how quickly the need for maintenance can creep up.
Despite the shuffling in the administration she is confident that the merger will be a benefit to the parks and the community overall. With the two departments sewn into one, Ilif says Parks’ crews will have easier access to heavy equipment such as tractors and rider mowers.
“From the parks maintenance section that makes up two-thirds of the Parks budget, it will be business as usual,” she says. “The piece that is going to change is the administrative piece. That is where most of the cuts were made to our department to accommodate the merger. For a person that uses our parks, the change will be seamless.”
As the flood of red ink is soaked up, however, the need grows for a ground level army of community members to fill in the gaps. Nowhere has this been more successful, perhaps, than at the long unused and ignored Pinto Lake County Park outside of Watsonville. Volunteers have been using their free time to put the finishing touches on a disc golf course that will host the final round of the Pro Disc Golf Association World Championships on Aug. 13.
Because Parks had not worked with the disc golf community before, they chose to be very involved in work on the first nine holes of the 27-hole course, but the hardworking volunteer crews organized by disc golfer Tom Schot did most of the improvements on the final nine holes. The volunteers will do almost all of the work after they get Parks’ approval for their plans.
“The county has stepped up like no other parks department I have ever worked with … and they paid for the cement [for 18 new tee pads],” Schot tells GT from his office at World Disc Sports in San Jose. “On the meadow we have 40 acres that we share with the birds and other wildlife. They can get their seeds on our fairways, and we get to look for our discs in their area.”
Beyond building the world-class course, volunteers plan to improve other parts of the park, including cleaning Pinto Lake. Currently it is overgrown and filled with litter after years of neglect.
“Even [residents living on the borders of the park] have joined in the effort, dragging their hoses 200 feet from their houses to water trees and keeping the grass green near fairways,” says Schot. “The community has really jumped in to take ownership of this park [because] we all know the Parks Department is strapped for cash. We are all connected around the flight of the disc.”
Although an overworked Presleigh happily left for vacation last week, he admits that his laptop is a stowaway on his trip. He is working at least a bit every day putting finishing touches on what all parties hope will be a productive partnership.
According to Leopold, the Board of Supervisors had their hands tied by the realities of this year’s budget, but hopes in the future that the two departments can go back to focusing on what they each do best as soon a possible.
“We had several more ideas for Parks on the Board, and even ones we already had permits for,” says Leopold, “But given the resources, this was the best choice we could have made.”
Counties across the state have already filed lawsuits claiming the zeroing out of RDA funds is illegal and will harm local governments’ ability to properly serve constituents. RDA Administrator Betsey Lynberg says the RDA and County Accounting Office expect to report back to the board in August on the pros and cons of getting RDA funds reinstated. However, the only way she sees now to keep the office open in 2011-12 is to pay $9.7 million to the state this year.
“The potential of securing future RDA funds that could be focused on Parks, really remains uncertain,” says Lynberg. “[But] making that payment wouldn’t [address Parks’ need in the whole county]. That really only has to do with retaining the Redevelopment Agency and operations of parks in [Live Oak and Soquel].”