Council favors half-cent tax earmark for parks upkeep

May. 29, 2014 @ 08:25 PM

City Council members signaled support Thursday for a plan to earmark the revenue from an additional half-cent on Durham’s in-town tax rate to improve the day-to-day upkeep of its parks and trails.

The decision came after Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson explained the latest iteration of the city staff’s plan for using new money for regular work and inspections.
“We are proposing what I would say is the silver standard, not the gold standard, Ferguson said, adding that top-level administrators are “not comfortable” asking for more given the level of supervision that’s now in place.
The extra half-cent would generate about $1.2 million. In fiscal 2014-15 officials will use $747,940 to hire and equip 12 new employees to perform maintenance chores.
Six of the new hires will work in the Parks and Recreation Department.
Out of those, officials will put together a four-person work crew that includes a couple of laborers, an equipment operator and a supervisor. The crew will work full time, in the warm weather months focusing on the parks system’s ball fields and in the winter concentrating on drainage, erosion, parking-lot repair and other needed tasks.
The other two hires in Parks and Recreation will become roving inspectors, to check parks on a regular schedule and do any quick, on-the-spot repairs that seem necessary.
The other six hires will work out of the General Services Department. Four will become part of a landscaping crew, working on the plantings at the city’s 60-plus parks. The other two will mow, sweep and watch over its 36 miles of public trails.
Ferguson said the General Services end of the hiring plan will offer a “100 percent improvement” on what that department has managed in years past, when the press of other priorities meant it gave virtually no attention to parks landscaping and little to the trails.
Administrators are coupling the hiring plan to an inspection and upkeep schedule customized for each park in the city system.
It spells out how often each should be mowed, cleaned and inspected, the precise number varying with the amount of open space and play facilities in each and how much use they see from the public.
The remaining $460,728 in the first year of the program will go toward some heavier repairs.
For example, to make park bathrooms more vandal-resistant, officials plan to replace all “visible” copper piping, replace porcelain toilets and sinks with stainless steel models, replace wooden bathroom partitions with plastic partitions and give the bathrooms a coat of graffiti-resistant paint.
The money will also help pay for parking-lot paving in five parks and the replacement of safety tiles under a playground at Cook Road Park.
In subsequent years, officials will move to more of an even split of labor and project-specific costs, as they’ll already have the necessary equipment for the new work crews in hand.
General Services will retain control over building maintenance at the city’s recreation centers, as that department employs people in the major trades like plumbing and electrical.
Ferguson said the regular checks and inspections will give administrators the data they need to plan repairs in the follow-on years of the program, along with any the council might need if it contemplates bigger projects.
And they’re a big departure from current practice. “The only regular and thorough attention the parks current receive comes down the cleanup of litter and emptying the trash cans and cutting the grass,” Ferguson said. “Everything else we’re doing on a catch-as-catch-can basis.
He stressed that none of the new money will go into adding facilities. That addresses an objection from Mayor Bill Bell to an earlier version of the plan.
Bell indicated he was satisfied with the latest proposal. “I can say that you’ve given us a lot more detail than we had earlier when we started down this path,” he said, adding that Ferguson can oversee the implementation because General Services and the parks department both report to him.
The half-cent is most likely to become an addition to the 1.29-cent increase in Durham’s property tax rate City Manager Tom Bonfield has requested for fiscal 2014-15. Council members did not ask Bonfield to find offsetting budget cuts.
Officials will likely finalize the budget next week, with a formal adoption vote to come on June 16.