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Seniors, youth face cuts to park programs

Sat., July 9, 2011

Some of Spokane’s senior and youth centers could face closure next year under budget-balancing proposals soon to be considered by the Spokane Park Board.

Park officials stress that the budget ideas are preliminary and are likely to shift this summer after board consideration and public vetting.

Even so, park reports make it clear that recreation funding, including for senior and youth centers, as well as Riverfront Park, are likely to take the biggest hit as the board decides how to slash about $1 million from the budget. Full elimination of youth and senior center funding would amount to $600,000.

“It would close our doors,” said Karen Holmes, director of the Northeast Youth Center, which serves about 250 kids. “We’re already at the edge.”

Spokane’s park department provides funding to 10 youth and senior centers or programs throughout the city. Park funding varies greatly among the centers; some get nearly half their total budget from the city, while others get subsidies representing 10 percent or less of their budgets.

“I would think for a few of these organizations, if these cuts are realized, it means the death knell of the organization,” said City Councilman Steve Corker, a board member of the Corbin Senior Activity Center.

Corker said he’s concerned that the loss of city funding could make matching-grant money disappear as well.

Another idea under consideration in a park memo about possible budget solutions is to cut the amount devoted to youth and senior centers in half, then require individual centers to compete for the remaining funding.

Further cuts to the city’s youth and senior centers alarms many users of the services. Center funding was cut 5 percent this year and also was significantly cut in the city’s 2004 budget shortfall.

“As a single parent I need to get to my job. I depend on this community center,” said Elizabeth Kelley, who has two sons enrolled in summer and before- and after-school programs at the West Central Community Center.

She said her sons have become noticeably healthier since they started attending two years ago because they’ve become more active. Besides providing positive activities, the center includes alcohol and drug education and other important life-skills programs, she said. She pays the center on a sliding scale based on her income.

Park Board President Ross Kelley said while senior and youth center funding is under consideration for cuts, everything else will be, too.

“There are no sacred cows,” Kelley said. “We have a revenue problem and an expenditure problem.”

Still, officials acknowledge that some other ideas contemplated in the park budget memo are extremely unlikely, such as selling Clark Park on Division Street, which would require a public vote, and closing all the city’s brand-new swimming pools.

The city’s park department gets an amount equal to 8 percent of the city’s general fund budget, which is the pot of money generated mostly through taxes, as opposed to utility fees. The calculation is based on the general fund of two years earlier, meaning that the park department is just starting to feel the budget pain that the rest of the city started feeling earlier.

The park department’s first budget draft for 2012, for example, shows recreation funding cut by 40 percent and Riverfront Park funding cut by about 50 percent.

This year’s park budget is about $18.4 million, not including the cost to demolish the former downtown YMCA and restore the land in Riverfront Park. To maintain current service levels, the department predicts it would need $19.4 million. The increase is needed in large part to cover pay raises and the expected rise in health care costs.

Under the City Charter, park budget and policy decisions are determined by the Park Board, not the mayor or City Council.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said she had not seen any proposal to eliminate youth and senior center funding.

“The parks department is simply adhering to the policy of going out to stakeholders as early as possible to engage them in balancing the budget in 2012,” Verner said.

“This is early conversation. The concern that you’re hearing from the community centers is a shared concern. We all are concerned about finding a way to continue to provide those services to a community while we also have to balance the budget in the middle of a recession.”

Kelley said park officials agree that the centers are important, but many don’t believe they should be funded by the parks department.

“I don’t think that we as a parks department should be funding social programs,” Kelley said. “We all agree that they provide a meaningful function. But is it a parks and recreation function?”

Advocates of the youth and senior centers question how their park funding couldn’t be categorized as recreation when providing recreation is largely what they do.

Alice Lacy, a member of the Corbin Senior Activity Center, said she started attending the center after she retired and got tired of watching TV. She now attends Corbin two or three times a week.

“For a lot of seniors, we wouldn’t have a social life at all if we didn’t come down here,” Lacy said. “I don’t think they should knock us under the rug. We did our time supporting the community. We paid our taxes.”

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