County open-space funds on chopping block

Jun. 09, 2014 @ 10:25 PM

Local environmental groups urged County Commissioners on Monday to pass on the idea of cutting two programs designed to support public open space and recreation.

The potential cost-cutting would zero out a $75,000-a-year pool of grants that have provided matching funds for small projects, and reduced by 20 percent the county’s $500,000 annual reserve for larger property acquisitions.

County Manager Wendell Davis suggested the cuts after commissioners put pressure on him to scale back the 2.73-cent increase the countywide property tax rate he suggested in his fiscal 2014-15 budget request.

A decision could follow in the commissioners’ budget deliberations this week

“We have to look at every area to see what’s the best thing we can do,” Commissioner Brenda Howerton said. “Something’s got to give; we can’t have it both ways. Something’s got to go.”

But groups like the Triangle Land Conservancy and the Eno River Association liken the idea of putting the open space programs on the table to the sort of moves the N.C. General Assembly has made on the state level.

They noted that the General Assembly, under Republican control since 2011, has massively scaled back support for programs like the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

“I’m concerned to see that happening in Durham as well,” said Chad Jemison, executive director of the Triangle Land Conservancy.

The matching-grant program operates under the umbrella of the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission, and will fund up to half of a project. It’s been in place since 1991. Its first grants included a couple to help residents of south Durham’s Parkwood neighborhood repair their neighborhood’s ball field.

In recent years, however, the program has fallen on hard times. County officials suspended it entirely in 2010 and 2011, years they were pinching pennies because of the recession.

But grants resumed in 2012, going among other things for work along the Ellerbe Creek Trail and a bridge in River Forest Park.

Over the years, the “program has funded 71 open space projects in Durham with only $1.3 million,” said Chris Dreps, a member of the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association. “What an amazing accomplishment. Cutting matching grants is a bad idea that would cost the county in the long run while only saving a small amount this year.”

The larger open-space reserve, meanwhile, funds the county’s own land purchases. Its fate has been up in the air the last year or so, drawing skepticism from among others Commissioner Fred Foster.

Davis in seeking what translates into a 3.5 percent increase in the countywide tax rate was seeking money primarily to cover rising debt payments, plus the cost of a wide-ranging change to county-employee salary scales.