Durham council dubious of park-funding idea

Feb. 20, 2014 @ 05:58 PM

Advocates for a “penny for parks” tax earmark will have trouble assembling a City Council majority for it this year, judging from the reactions of some key members on Thursday.

Critically, Councilwoman Diane Catotti voiced skepticism, saying she has other priorities at the moment for city funding. Even if she comes around to supporting a parks earmark, “it wouldn’t be at the full penny,” she said.

She spoke after Mayor Bill Bell, reiterating comments he made last summer, said he’s not particularly inclined to spend money on new park projects.

“I’ve got to be convinced we’ve got a plan in place that shows how we can maintain what we’ve got,” he said.

The only clear support for the proposal, which city staffers for the moment are assuming would generate about $2.3 million a year for parks upkeep and development, came from Councilmen Steve Schewel and Don Moffitt.

Schewel, a youth soccer coach, made it clear he thinks Bell’s nothing-new position is fundamentally wrongheaded. He said many of the Parks and Recreation Department’s troubles with upkeep stem from the fact that its facilities are overused.

“Our ability to maintain, and having enough, is totally interrelated,” Schewel said.

He was alluding to prior comments from parks officials who said the department in practical terms can’t follow industry best practice in closing grass ballfields for part of the growing season.

Periodic closures allow a grass surface to recover from the pounding it takes during league and pick-up games.

But “we have so few fields it’s very hard to close them down” given local demand, said Beth Timson, a department assistant director. “Even if we say they’re closed, that doesn’t keep people off them.”

The department in fact wants to get around the issue by resorting more to the use of artificial turf, a surface that’s fallen out of favor among professional sports teams for reasons that includes its potential to contribute to player injuries.

Administrators modeled the penny-for-parks proposal on the “penny for housing” tax-rate surcharge the council implemented two years ago to fund the Rolling Hills/Southside redevelopment and other housing initiatives.

The draft proposal for parks suggests using, over the coming five years, about 52 percent of the money to secure a new park site in southwest Durham and do some artificial-turf installations.

The rest would go into maintenance, either directly for projects or into hiring and equipping full- and part-time workers to perform routine upkeep.

The “construction element does not propose to build new parks,” Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson said. “It puts resources aside to be able to buy open space if it becomes available, and do some major renovations.”

Answering questions from Bell, Ferguson said the city staff has worked since last summer to make sure the parks department and the General Services Department work more closely together to monitor and address maintenance needs.

General Services handles most of the city park system’s major repair needs, particularly requiring heavy-duty carpentry or tradespeople like plumbers and electricians. Parks handles a good bit of small-scale work on its own.

The two departments at Ferguson’s prodding have compared notes and found that some jobs were falling through the cracks. Repaving work on parking lots and trails, as an example, wasn’t being handled by either.

Officials also found that some work went undone because it’s costly enough to make a big dent in the parks department budget but not expensive enough to merit adding it to the council-approved, debt-fueled capital-improvement plan.

Typically that means things that cost $30,000 or $40,000, Ferguson said, adding that the penny initiative attempts “to find a way to fill in those gaps.”

Catotti, meanwhile, indicated that the land-banking component of the plan may not win her support, even though the long-range parks plan the council approved last summer calls for exactly that in south Durham.

“We’re being asked to land-bank for affordable housing around transit areas,” she said, alluding to an issue being pushed by the People’s Alliance and an assortment of church groups. “So I’m not in a position to support land-banking for parks at this point.”