Robey taking $1.7 million from parks

Move is necessary to help balance the budget, executive says

Advocates express anger

Money is from a fund of accumulated fees the agency charges the public

Howard County

April 23, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Tight fiscal times have pushed Howard County Executive James N. Robey to take $1.7 million accumulated in a recreation and parks fund to bail out the county's leaky budget boat.

The move has raised the ire of recreation advocates, though Robey defends it as something he had to do for the county's general welfare in a difficult revenue year. The executive pledged yesterday that "no recreation and parks program will suffer."

But several present and former recreation board members are angry that over the past decade, the county has forced recreation officials to raise an ever-increasing share of their annual budget by charging fees to the public, and now that those funds have accumulated, the county is taking the money.

The county, which once paid for nearly all recreation programs, funds roughly 42 percent of the $8 million annual department budget. The rest comes from fees and grants.

County recreation officials had hoped to use most of the money from the so-called "self-sustaining" fund to begin a pilot program to rebuild badly worn athletic fields at heavily used Rockburn Branch Park with new, longer lasting synthetic turf.

"It's like taking a child's piggy bank before they have a chance to buy anything," said Willa Brooks, who was chairwoman of the county's Recreation and Parks Board for eight of her 10 years of membership. "They [recreation workers] worked so hard so they can plow it back into services."

Robey defended his decision.

"I've got a government to run and a budget to balance." Brooks, he said, is "an expert in recreation and not an expert in government."

Robey will have to use up to $15 million from the county's Rainy Day Fund to balance the current fiscal year's budget. Lower revenues expected next fiscal year have led to a small, 1.6 percent spending increase proposed for next year. To give county schools a $16.3 million increase next year, Robey cut 5 percent from public works and 8 percent from recreation and parks - not counting the money from the recreation department's self-sustaining fund.

"It seems like recreation always gets the short end," said county Recreation and Parks Board Chairman Donald M. Bandel, acknowledging that recreation will always be a lower priority than education and public safety. "What can you do?"

Joan Lancos, a 10-year board member, who is also county Planning Board chairwoman, said she, too, is upset about losing the bulk of the fund. "I find this very frustrating," given how much of its annual budget the department must raise on its own. Public recreation is in a philosophical bind, Lancos said, between the county, which wants the department to fund more of its own programs, and private recreation facility owners who oppose expanded public activities - seeing a farm corn maze or a western county golf course as competition.

"The more [money] recreation and parks can generate, the less support we get from the county," she said.

Gary Arthur, director of recreation and parks, said the fund has been built up over the past five years - mainly from program fees for 4,000 recreation programs and before- and after-school care programs at 34 county schools outside Columbia. The annual Wine in the Woods Festival in Columbia also produces a profit, he said.

Arthur said the county left about $500,000 in the fund, but the department must pay $400,000 of that to the county after July 1 for administrative costs associated with the fund.

Projects that will have to wait include repairs at several historic county sites - including the roof at Waverly Mansion in Marriottsville, and loose bricks and decking at the Patapsco Female Institute ruins in Ellicott City, Arthur said.

The money the county is taking from recreation and parks "is the cushion they [recreation and parks officials] use when unexpected things come up," said Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, a group that works to preserve historic county sites.

Otherwise, Arthur and James M. Irvin, the county public works director, said they can manage the proposed budget cuts by delaying the purchase of supplies and by putting off projects.

Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said the self-sustaining fund "was supposed to cover its costs. It was not supposed to generate a surplus." The $1.7 million will not be returned, he and Robey said, and future surpluses, Wacks said will be evaluated "on a case-by-case basis."

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