Council to discuss parks funding

Feb. 19, 2014 @ 07:21 PM

Two years after instituting a “penny for housing” property tax earmark to fund affordable-housing programs, the City Council may do the same for Durham’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Administrators will brief the full council on the idea Thursday, to gauge its interest as work on the city’s fiscal 2014-15 budget gets underway.
“This will be the collective council’s opportunity to have some conversation about the extent to which this a priority and give us some feedback on whether they agree or not,” City Manager Tom Bonfield said.
Bonfield said the idea has been percolating for about six months as officials have talked with advisory boards and other interest groups about how to improve the upkeep of existing parks and prepare to build new ones.
The penny idea borrows on what the council did in fiscal 2012-13, when it raised the city’s tax rate by 1 cent per $100 of assessed value to fund housing work. The money went into the Rolling Hills/Southside redevelopment and other programs.
A cent on the tax rate translated in the current fiscal year to about $2.4 million in added revenue.
Officials before enacting the housing penny established a five-year plan for use of the added money, in essence figuring out all the allotments of it ahead of time.
The parks proposal envisions something similar, but so far includes less detail.
Conservatively, it assumes a penny on the tax rate will generate $2.3 million a year, not $2.4 million, without any year-to-year growth in the tax base. So officials figure it’ll raise $11.5 million over five years.
The plan calls for spending 52 percent of that – about $5.9 million – for land acquisition and park renovations.
A chunk would go to buy land in southwest Durham for a new, 20-acre park. The rest would pay for work at existing parks. Parks officials want to convert at least one ball field to artificial turf, and build two new, artificial-turf fields.
The remaining $5.6 million would go into maintenance, paying both for materials and projects, and to hire and equip full-time and seasonal workers to handle clean-up chores and routine repairs.
Official would “front-load” the maintenance work, allotting $2.1 million to it in the first two years of the program.
The proposed split comes because administrators don’t think it’s a good idea to spend money “strictly for buying or paying for new stuff when we haven’t had the resources to maintain existing facilities,” Bonfield said.
The Parks and Recreation Department has a $10.7 million annual budget, so the penny nominally would mean a 21 percent increase in available funding. The budget picture’s a bit more complicated than that, though, because the city’s General Services Department handles parks maintenance.
Since taking over as city manager in 2008, Bonfield has taken a hard line against major new parks initiatives, arguing the city already has more facilities than it can maintain.
His stance led to the cancellation of plans for the city to buy and turn into a public rec center the former Duke Diet & Fitness building on Trinity Avenue. And during the recession he pressed, successfully, for closing several small community centers.
The manager sees little possibility for expanding the city’s parks program absent council orders to change budget and tax policy.
“Most of the priorities we’ve been trying to respond to have been around public safety and streets,” Bonfield said.
He added that the city’s polling of residents continues to show safety and streets as the top two worries of residents although “although some parks and rec stuff [does] bubble up as the third.”
The council last year endorsed a long-term parks plan that called for the city to boost maintenance and begin planning for new facilities in suburban areas, particularly in south Durham.
The plan was conceptual and didn’t have any funding attached to it.
But when it comes to parks and trails, “if you don’t get the land for them now, especially for parks, you may never be able to get it” given the pace of private-sector development in Durham, City Councilman Steve Schewel said.
Schewel, a volunteer youth soccer coach, has advocated for improvements to the city’s parks, favors the penny proposal and is “very hopeful” it can be enacted for fiscal 2014-15. He said it’s been discussed with three city advisory boards and the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association.