Council no closer to resolving split on parks funding

Mar. 21, 2014 @ 09:00 PM

Deeply divided on the issue, City Council members have, for the moment, shelved the idea of earmarking a specific percentage of their government’s property tax rate for parks maintenance.

But the move on Thursday appeared to postpone rather than make a decision that will give residents a clear signal about where parks maintenance rates on council’s priority list.

Members asked the city staff for a list of upkeep needs and said they would resume debate during their fiscal 2014-15 budget deliberations in late May.

“I leave it to the staff to say what they need, and we’ll look at it,” Councilwoman Diane Catotti said.

Catotti’s formulation made it possible for the council to wrap up a lengthy discussion that showed the council is far from any consensus on either the right level of funding for parks upkeep or the priority it merits.

The discussion began earlier this year when City Manager Tom Bonfield’s staff floated the idea of a “penny for parks” rate earmark that would generate $2.4 million a year for maintenance.

The penny refers to a cent on the tax rate, and the revenue figure is in line with what official expect a cent on the rate to yield in 2014-15.

The city now spends up to about $1.7 million a year on routine parks upkeep, the bill coming out of the budgets of the Parks and Recreation Department and the General Services Department, Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson said.

Ferguson said the departments are making a list of routine requirements, and it’s clear the city would need to spend much more than it does to meet them.

“We are so far away from the standards we have in that manual, I pushed it back and said, ‘This is a thought piece,’” said Ferguson, who supervises both departments. “It is a level of maintenance our parks have not ever seen.”

“Our manual is the gold standard,” he added. “Realistically, across the city we have to make decisions about not achieving the gold standard.”

The staff proposal on the earmark proposed splitting allocations of the revenue, using part to pay to hire and equip another repair crew and part on actual renovations. Ferguson said the repair crew is tops on departmental wish lists, and could be funded for about $600,000 a year, the amount a quarter-cent on the tax rate would generate.

The council discussion confirmed that the only full-on supporters of the penny are Councilmen Steve Schewel and Don Moffitt, Schewel being the more adamant of the two on the point.

Catotti and Councilman Eugene Brown said they would at most consider a half-penny’s worth of earmark, worth up to $1.2 million. And Brown said he would prefer it to be “less than that.”

Mayor Bill Bell and his closest political ally, Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden, were unwilling to go even that far. The mayor said he wants administrators to do what they did for the Durham Performing Arts Center, listing long-term maintenance needs and the associated costs, before he’d consider a funding request.

But Bell made it clear he doesn’t think the council would actually follow up by funding the work.

Moffitt put the question to him directly. “We know we have substantial gaps in maintenance in parks and recreation, we just don’t know how substantial,” he said. “Would we be willing to fund the entire gap, if it’s $4 million?”

“Probably not,” Bell answered, adding that he thinks a downsizing of the city’s parks inventory “needs to be on the table.”

Moffitt’s mention of $4 million alluded to some national guidelines Ferguson had explained earlier, which suggest a city with the facilities and acreage Durham has in its parks program should be spending anywhere from $3.8 million to $7.7 million a year on upkeep.

Bonfield said parks have ranked lower on the city’s priority list than public safety and transportation needs.

The latter have included Durham’s paving program, which has been the focus of similar discussions.

City officials used two bond issues in recent years on catch-up paving work, passing the second in 2010 after promising key political and business groups they would raise cash allocations for roadwork to head off any additional borrowing.

But that’s arguably become a broken promise, as officials in fiscal 2013-14 put $750,000 in cash toward paving and say they want to raise that next year to only $1 million.

Public Works Director Marvin Williams and his predecessor, Katie Kalb, agreed the city really needs to spend up to $5 million a year on paving to meet industry-standard paving schedules.

The council’s approach to maintenance drew criticism earlier this year from former Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau President Reyn Bowman.

In a blog posting available at http://bit.ly/1lYnlfc, he said elected officials prefer using debt to finance maintenance because it lets them delay tax-rate decisions, avoiding them entirely if the city’s tax base grows fast enough to cover the bill for interest.

But by doing so, Durham “officials walk themselves into a trap when growth in the economy is not sufficient to hide the costs,” Bowman said. “So instead, they double down the squeeze on things they think we won’t notice, such as community upkeep.”