Parks budget causes concern

Carroll commissioners cutting capital funding

June 13, 1999|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

The county commissioners' recent decision to phase out capital funding for the Bureau of Recreation and Parks has some residents worried about the future of Carroll's sports fields and scenic vistas.

"It's absolutely absurd. We can't keep up with the demand for recreational facilities as it is. How are we going to do it with less funding?" asked Marty Sommers, president of the Freedom Area Recreation Council. The organization is the largest of its kind in the county, with more than 10,000 participants.

Last month, Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier told administrators in the Bureau of Recreation and Parks that they will soon have to fund their capital budget -- money used for land acquisition and construction projects -- with revenue from impact fees and the state's Program Open Space.

The announcement was made May 26 as the three-member Board of County Commissioners adopted a $265 million budget for fiscal year 2000, which begins July 1. The commissioners said they have no plans to eliminate county funding for the bureau's daily operations.

The budget allocated $376,150 to the bureau's capital projects, which are expected to cost nearly $1 million, according to Richard Soisson, deputy director for parks and recreation. County funding is expected to drop to $254,000 in fiscal year 2001, with additional cuts in future years.

The planned slash in county funding has fueled fears that recreation and parks spending will suffer. Concerns about the fate of Carroll's parks and ball fields were first raised in February, when the commissioners eliminated the Department of Recreation and Parks and moved its bureaus under a new department.

"The whole idea behind the realignment was to cut red tape and cut costs, and here they're making it more difficult for citizens to get things done," said Sommers. "It used to take one phone call to get the fields mowed; now I spend most of my time on the phone and still nothing is done."

Added Judy Baker, president of the Deer Park Recreation Council: "Their decision to cut county funding for recs and parks seems somewhat at odds with their strategic plan. They say they want to help the children, but this only hurts them."

Baker is already feeling the pain of budget cuts. For years, she has asked the commissioners to pave the entrance to the popular Westminster sports complex. The $29,990 project was tabled again this year.

"We need to have that taken care of, for safety reasons and to improve the appearance of our facility," Baker said. "We're here to help the county out, but we are not a business. Where does the council come up with that kind of money? Are we supposed to raise registration fees?"

Nearly 4,000 people participate in Deer Park's football, lacrosse, soccer and baseball programs, Baker said. The fees range from $55 to $75.

"The commissioners are forcing the issue to the point where families won't be able to afford to participate," Baker said. "The kids are our future. If we don't keep them on the straight and narrow, where are we going to be?"

Frazier, who pushed for the funding cut, has said she would consider using county dollars for parks projects -- but only if alternative funding sources are not available.

"There may be times when we need to use general funds for ball fields or lights, but I believe we can do a better job and save the taxpayers some money," Frazier said.

Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge and Donald I. Dell seemed to agree, though Dell said he would be "uncomfortable" prohibiting the use of county funds completely.

"I don't think we can say that the county will not participate in these projects," Dell said. "People pay taxes and they expect something for it."

State Program Open Space dollars and impact fees -- money residential developers must pay to the county to offset the cost of growth -- will not generate enough revenue to pay for the bureau's capital projects, Soisson said. The state program requires a dollar-for-dollar local match, and the impact fees cannot be used for maintenance or repair projects.

"There may be some projects that we simply won't be able to do," Soisson said. "We're in agreement with the commissioners' philosophy, and we've been trying to use Program Open Space money instead of county dollars, but that's not always legally possible."

The Freedom Area Recreation Council has several projects, estimated at between $3 million and $4 million, scheduled in the next two years. Sommers, the council president, fears those projects -- including lights at Freedom Park in Sykesville and the purchase of land for a new park -- may be put on hold.

"Certainly the projects will be under more scrutiny," Sommers said. "The communities will suffer because projects could be delayed by three, four or five years."

Pub Date: 6/13/99

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