Amid funding debate, councilmen tour parks

Mar. 29, 2014 @ 06:51 PM

Four city councilmen spent their Friday morning taking a firsthand look at some of the maintenance issues that have sparked a debate about how their government funds its Parks and Recreation Department.

The tour took Councilmen Eugene Brown, Eddie Davis, Don Moffitt and Steve Schewel to a quartet of city parks, all of them popular with residents and relatively close to the heart of Durham.
After looking at just one, Moffitt said it’s obvious the department’s maintenance problems fall in two categories.
“One is the capital needs, the other is just having enough people to cover the parks to make sure [things like] the lights are working,” he said.
Accompanied by department administrators, the councilmen stopped at Wrightwood Park, Forest Hills Park, Hillside Park and Long Meadow Park.
The tour passed up suburban facilities like Twin Lakes Park, which department Assistant Director Beth Timson said has problems with a road and a dam.
Wrightwood Park is near Duke University, off Anderson Street. Parks Timson pointed out crumbling pavement in the parking lot, poor drainage affecting a small softball and T-ball field, damaged fencing and vandalism to a picnic shelter.
The ball field sits in a natural bowl and had obvious crowning problems, the playing surface sloping down from the outfield fence to the infield. Timson said the department has considered installing French drains to help it dry.
“A few thousand dollars, a few days’ time and a crew with a backhoe and some trenching equipment could make a significant improvement,” she said. “But it’s one of those things we don’t get to do.”
Forest Hills Park is between downtown and the South Square area, off University Drive. At 48.5 acres, the former golf course was the largest park on the tour.
Timson said the park’s landscaping has deteriorated over time, despite help the department’s received from volunteers from the surrounding neighborhoods. Many of its plantings could stand to be replaced.
Hillside Park is off South Roxboro Street near the former Whitted Junior High School and the city’s Rolling Hills/Southside redevelopment.
Its problems included a broken sidewalk that Brown called “a lawsuit waiting to happen.” At other places, the walkway had been patched to repair damage from when a work crew drove a truck over it to get to and remove a large, dead tree.
Timson said she couldn’t fault the crew because the walkway is not just the only access, but among the only flat ground in the park.
Moffitt, prowling the grounds snapping photos with his phone, also pointed out a junction box with exposed wiring, and another that had rusted out.
As the councilmen looked around, a worker from the Parks and Recreation Department was busy picking up and stacking fallen tree limbs. Timson said it might be a while before the limbs get hauled to the city dump, as the department doesn’t necessarily have money enough to pay the dump’s tip fees.
Long Meadow Park is in North-East Central Durham, between Holloway and Liberty Streets near Eastway Elementary School and the city’s Eastway Village housing project.
Like Hillside and Forest Hills, it has an outdoor swimming pool that’s open and heavily used in the summer.
But Timson said officials are increasingly hesitant about opening Long Meadow’s pool. Water seeps through concrete walls and collects in the facility’s underground equipment and electrical room, posing a safety hazard for workers. The department also needs to top off the pool each day to make up losses from a leak it hasn’t been able to find.
Brown said there’s an obvious dilemma there for city officials, given the pool’s location and popularity. “We’d have a revolt if we closed it,” he said.
He’d previously asked Timson if the department had considered closing some of the city’s 68 parks to free up money. She answered by noting it’d given the council a report a couple of years ago that said 12 to 14 parks could be “repurposed” for open space and other programs that would require less upkeep.
But in many cases, closing parks isn’t really an option thanks to strings-attached grants officials accepted for them from the federal government, she said.
Parks maintenance emerged as a front-burner issue for the City Council this year when administrators floated the idea of a “penny for parks” earmark of property tax rate. The penny refers to the revenue expected from 1 cent on the tax rate, equivalent to about $2.4 million a year.
Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson has estimated the city spends about $1.6 million a year on parks upkeep, the money from two city departments, Parks and General Services.
The penny proposal split city leaders, drawing support from Schewel and Moffitt, opposition from Mayor Bill Bell and Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden, and a lukewarm response from Brown and Councilwoman Diane Catotti.
Davis, new to office after replacing former Councilman Howard Clement late last year, has yet to tip his hand.