Council still split on Durham parks funding

Feb. 28, 2014 @ 05:26 PM

City Council members remain divided Friday on whether they should increase spending on parks maintenance via a so-called “penny for parks” tax earmark that would raise at least $2.3 million more for it each year.

They agreed City Manager Tom Bonfield can request a 1.29-cent increase in the city’s property tax rate for fiscal 2014-15, to cover debt payments, employee salary increases and the bill for previously grant-funded police and firefighting positions.

But when Councilman Steve Schewel asked them to consider tacking on another cent for the parks plan, there were no takers. Instead, one of his closest political allies, Councilwoman Diane Catotti, said she’d favor only up to a half-cent.

Catotti again signaled that she rates the parks-maintenance issue lower than other priorities, mentioning a potential effort “by several council members” to repeal the $1.80-a-month trash-collection fee the council imposed on homeowners last summer.

The council would need to raise taxes to cover the revenue that the Solid Waste Management Department would lose to a repeal of the fee.

The mention of the trash fee was a new twist, as Catotti last week said she was interested in raising money to reserve land for the development of low-cost, “affordable” housing.

But she was more supportive of parks spending than Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden, who said she’d assign a higher priority to the anti-poverty initiatives Mayor Bill Bell called for earlier this month in his annual “state of the city” address.

Bell’s poverty speech had been notably short on specifics, and Cole-McFadden’s comment drew from him the admission that he hadn’t intended to seek a tax increase for anti-poverty work.

“My talk was not about new revenues but better utilizing the resources we have out there,” Bell said.

As for the parks proposal, the mayor was still dubious, questioning whether it would make much of a dent on any maintenance deficit.

Parks and Recreation Director Rhonda Parker and her staff favor using money from the tax earmark first to hire additional full- and part-time workers to perform routine chores at the city’s facilities.

And if the council opts for a half-cent or larger earmark, they also would push ahead with some park renovations, mostly involving the installation of artificial-turf playing surfaces on athletic fields.

At Bell’s request, administrators submitted an estimate of the value of the city’s park system, saying it might cost nearly $195 million in present-day dollars to replace.

They also noted a common rule of thumb in the parks trade is that cities should put money equivalent to up to 4 percent of the value of their holdings each year into repairs and preventive maintenance, lest otherwise-good facilities “slide into poor condition and need to be replaced at higher cost.”

The 4 percent guideline implies Durham should be spending nearly $7.8 million a year on parks upkeep.

Parker’s department spends actually spends $1.4 million, though officials acknowledged that doesn’t count what the city General Services Department contributes to the effort. The two departments share responsibility for park maintenance.

Figures on the General Services share remain pending, but are unlikely to push the total annual spend to $7.8 million.

In 2013-14, General Services allotted $6.4 million to facility management, grounds keeping and custodial work at all city-owned facilities, not just parks.

Schewel said the city’s Recreation Advisory Committee recently toured several parks to look at maintenance issues, and urged his colleagues to do likewise “before we vote.”

Cole-McFadden was not interested. “I’ve seen all the parks,” she said.

The discussion occurred after the council received the results of the latest biennial “citizen satisfaction survey,” which indicated residents are happy with Durham’s park system as is.

The poll found that 64 percent of those questioned said they were satisfied or very satisfied with Parks and Recreation Department facilities and programs. It had a 4.8 percent margin of error, plus or minus.

Residents assign a higher priority to street maintenance, with only 44 percent voicing various degrees of satisfaction with the city’s work on that front.

That nonetheless improved on the numbers from past polls, which had fueled the council’s move late in the 2000s to call successful referenda on two paving bonds.

Officials also pledged to boost annual cash allocations for paving.

But they’re figuring on allotting only $1 million in cash to paving in fiscal 2014-15, well short of the $5 million or so the city’s recent public works directors have reckoned on needing for streets.

The city’s pollster, Chris Tatham, said the biennial survey can help officials gauge the wishes of the vast majority of residents who don’t attend council meetings.

The council’s disarray on the parks front hasn’t gone unnoticed, with one resident, Todd Patton, emailing Schewel earlier this week to support the councilman’s position.

Patton was unhappy that Bell has invoked maintenance deficits as a reason against funding renovations or adding facilities.

“He’s been the mayor for 12 years,” Patton said. “If he really cares about park maintenance, where’s he been?”