As county budget tightens, parks feel pinch

Construction crews attacked Rocksprings Park last month with backhoes, dump trucks and human sweat. Jackhammers broke through the cracked, rundown basketball courts. Shovels and tractors dug up grass, gravel and concrete. Crews of workers poured new curbs and pads for extra parking.

 It’s phase one in a long-term park renovation, said Leisure Services Director Pam Reidy. But in a government-wide effort to tighten purse strings, it’s one of only three park projects leftover from the 2005 SPLOST project list the department will tackle this year.

 Reidy laid out her department’s multi-year plan to build and improve Athens-Clarke County parks at a Federation of Neighborhoods meeting on Monday, April 5.

 In December, the Mayor and Commission told the department there’s money to build the parks from the 2005 list, but very little to keep them open. So, Reidy said they’re putting everything possible on the backburner.

 But Reidy said it’s more expensive to back out of some projects than others, so they’re moving forward on three already contracted projects:

  • Opening agricultural and planetary interactive learning environments at the ENSAT center at Sandy Creek Park.
  • A new tennis center likely to be built, for financial reasons, at Southeast Clarke Park.
  • Rocksprings Community Center. It’s already underway and slated to finish by November with “as little impact to the neighborhood as possible” – the pool will stay open all summer long.

 SPLOST projects are funded by a 1 percent special local option sales tax, instead of general funds or property taxes, and are spent on capital projects – the brick and mortar stuff. A citizens group pours over a long list of prospects submitted by Athenians and government departments. They whittle down a short list of recommendations and deliver it to the Mayor and Commission, who make the final decision. Citizens approve the Mayor and Commission list in a November vote.

 Leisure Services’ SPLOST 2011 projects will focus on “what’s in the ground.” As all departments have been asked to keep budgets tight, plans address problems with existing infrastructure, on fixing the “beloved jewels” of our city parks system that have been “loved to death.”

 Expected renovations include:

  • Sandy Creek: ACC’s prize park may still sparkle in the spring sun, but Reidy said it “needs an awful lot of work.” At the SPLOST citizen’s committee’s request, they’ve scaled back an on over $3 million plan that will fix old leaky bathrooms and rotting foot bridges, as well as revamp and improve the park’s entry gates.
  • Rocksprings Park Phase 2: the neighborhood pool is 20 years over lifespan. At $1 a visit, local kids swarm the pool each summer day even as the lining peels.
  • Overall, Leisure Services scaled back their SPLOST 2011 request from $7 to $4.5 million. But small infrastructure items like replacing a broken lift elevator at Holland Sport Complex haven’t yet been cut.

 The SPLOST citizens advisory committee, a 22-member panel, will present its narrowed list to a Mayor and Commission work session on Tuesday, April 13. Federation President John Devine, who also serves on the SPLOST committee, said that even though project requests have been trimmed substantially, their future is still not certain.

 The committee cut a proposed $47 million Classic Center expansion from its recommendations, freeing up funds for projects like Leisure Services’ proposed renovations. An $80 million jail expansion has already swallowed up most of the available funding.

 But Devine reminded the federation that citizen recommendations for SPLOST 2005 did not include the Clayton Street and Lumpkin Avenue parking deck slated to begin construction soon. The Mayor and Commission tacked it on themselves.

 “Something can always happen,” Devine said, and he urged federation members to voice concerns to their commissioners.

 And Devine may be right, in a way.

 District 10 Commissioner Mike Hamby said a cheaper, $20 million Classic Center expansion will be re-proposed. The lower price tag allows ACC to expand the center, viewed as a much need economic engine, without abandoning projects treasured by voters, Hamby said at a town hall Saturday, April 10.

 Reidy said the amount of Leisure Services projects on the SPLOST 2011 list speaks to the value the community places on the outdoors. Athens-Clarke County is home to 17 public parks – that’s 3,400 acres of municipal green space.

 “There’s rumor around town that you are a really tough group,” Reidy said, in reference to last month’s heated discussion of affordable housing. “I might be getting off easy.”

 In a 50-year long tradition, the federation invites government officials, community leaders and knowledgeable citizens to discuss local issues with neighborhood groups and concerned citizens. The federation meets currently at the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation’s refurbished fire hall offices at the intersection of Prince Avenue and Hill Street.

 But just as Reidy began to feel at ease, federation member Wray Witten grilled the director over the status of the department’s master plan. In 2005, a citizen’s advisory committee, which included current federation president John Devine, worked with independent consultants on a draft of the master plan.

 “Some people have seen it,” Witten said. “Where is it?”

 Reidy didn’t have a clear answer, saying that with less than a year on the job, she’s playing a lot of catch-up. Witten and Devine pushed Reidy: “[The consultants] were taking notes on laptops,” Devine said. They want to see those notes.

 Reidy shrugged and said they’re working on it, prompting one federation member to ask: “Have we proved that we’re hard bodies?”

 Federation of Neighborhoods meets the first Monday of every month at old Fire Hall No.2, 489 Prince Avenue. Programs begin at 7:30 and are always free and open to the public.

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One Comment on “As county budget tightens, parks feel pinch”

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