It seemed like a monumental task. But Spokane park leaders have built everything they promised and more with the $43 million park bond voters approved less than four years ago.
The new pools, splash pads and fields, however, present the city with what might be an even bigger challenge: maintaining a costlier parks system in a down economy.
Officials acknowledge they didn’t fully comprehend the cost of operating the new facilities when they asked voters to replace aging and leaking municipal swimming pools.
The new costs could endanger other park functions, especially city recreation programs, later this year as the Park Board decides how to deal with an expected $1 million shortfall.
With pool costs greatly increased, the Park Board abandoned its tradition of free swimming for kids in 2009 and doubled the youth entry fee to $2 for the 2011 season. Earlier this year, the Park Board adopted a long-term park plan that has a focus on “cost recovery” – working to collect higher fees and corporate sponsorships to help balance the budget.
Park Director Leroy Eadie said all the new pools, splash pads and fields paid for with the park bond will continue to operate. The Park Board will examine expenses this summer with an eye toward programs that are used by the fewest people. Administrators say the deficit is partly the result of higher operating expenses associated with the new facilities, but the larger issues are the tepid economy and higher employee health care costs.
“The additional staff that is required – that has increased our operating budget and has squeezed our budget,” said Park Board member Randy Cameron, who leads the park Finance Committee.
Cameron said park leaders five years ago accurately picked the system’s biggest needs to address in the bond. But they fell short of calculating, for the board and the public, how those new facilities would affect the budget.
“It should have been analyzed critically over a five- to seven-year forecast,” Cameron said.
He added, however, that even if administrators had studied the financial impacts of new pools and fields, there still likely would be a shortfall.
“In 2006 and 2007, no one had a crystal ball that could predict the economy with the shortfall that everyone is feeling,” Cameron said.
Almost all construction complete
While the down economy is hurting the park budget, it was a boost to the bond projects.
Desperate contractors submitted lower-than-expected bids, allowing the Park Board to add unplanned features after nearly 70 percent of Spokane voters agreed to the park tax in 2007. Among the extra improvements are two artificial-turf fields at the new Dwight Merkel Sports Complex, added water-play features at all the city’s new pools and lawn-care equipment to help maintain new ball fields.
With almost all the construction complete, the bond has paid to replace six pools, build 15 splash pads to replace 12 wading pools that were abandoned in 2005, develop a new park and sports complex in northwest Spokane and renovate nine ball diamonds.
When park officials were asked about operating costs in 2007 in the lead-up to the vote, some speculated that pool operation costs could fall because equipment wouldn’t need frequent expensive repairs and leaking pools wouldn’t need as much water. In reality, costs have increased, partly because the new, bigger pools require more chemicals and a larger staff.
The city estimates it will cost about $1.1 million to operate the pools this year, up from about $700,000 in 2006. The 15 new splash pads add about $50,000 to the department’s budget.
Pay to play
With the new pools opening in 2009, the Park Board decided to begin charging kids to use them as part of a plan to recoup more costs from park users. The decision angered many advocates for the poor, who questioned why park leaders didn’t adopt the fee before asking voters for the tax. Some of that criticism has faded with new programs to subsidize swim fees for families who can’t afford them.
“What’s encouraging to me is that the Park Board has been very thoughtful to try to make sure that every kid will be able to swim – and have a swimsuit,” said Spokane Mayor Mary Verner.
The park department makes about 30 percent of its $18 million annual budget through fees and wants to increase that figure to 40 percent. Others, such as Cameron, the Park Board member, say it should go above that.
“Forty percent is a great start,” Cameron said.
Rich Dolesh, chief of public policy of the National Recreation and Park Association, said park systems nationwide collect about 40 percent of their revenue through fees and other “cost recovery” programs, such as sponsorships. He said Spokane’s park budget deficit – less than 10 percent of its $18 million budget – isn’t nearly as bad as those faced by many other communities.
That’s partly because Spokane’s City Charter requires 8 percent of its general fund – the money raised mostly through taxes – to be used for parks. The requirement ensures that the City Council can’t divert money from parks to higher-profile duties such as police and fire services.
Among other opportunities for raising money, the Park Board is crafting rules to encourage people and businesses to pay to have parks or facilities – such as Riverfront Park’s U.S. Pavilion or Clocktower – named after them.
Dolesh said increasing fees and sponsorships is common among park departments struggling to maintain services in a recession. Additionally, many park departments are forming partnerships with nonprofit youth athletic groups to help maintain and operate sports fields.
Spokane, however, has gone the opposite direction. Late last year, it terminated agreements with the Spokane Amateur Softball Association and Spokane Youth Sports Association to operate existing sports complexes and opted against partnering with nonprofits to operate the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex.
The decision has some league officials wondering why the city would abandon agreements that kept the fields running at little cost to taxpayers, especially when the city is facing budget cuts. Those groups also are angered by new fees the city is charging to use the fields.
“We could do it for less,” said Philip Helean, executive director of Spokane Youth Sports Association, which lost its agreement to run the Southeast Sports Complex late last year. “We have the knowledge and the experience and the resources.”
Rough start to city-run fields
At least some of the leagues say that under city leadership, communication has been poor, scheduling has been last-minute and chaotic – and their costs are up. The leagues are searching for venues with cheaper rates, they say.
“You’re going to have fields sitting open because the kids can’t afford it,” Helean said.
SYSA and the Amateur Softball Association submitted a proposal to operate and maintain the Franklin Park, Southeast and Dwight Merkel sports complexes. In exchange, they’d pay the city $30,000 and the city would pay for watering.
Park officials acknowledge that by rejecting that offer and terminating existing agreements with the leagues they’ve dug a deeper hole in the budget, but they hope that deficit will be reversed quickly.
With the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex now open and continued rivalry between different leagues over the venues, park director Eadie said taking over field maintenance and scheduling ensures that taxpayer-funded resources are divvied up fairly. In addition, the park department already maintains 4,000 acres of parks.
“We know how to do that, and we know how to do that rather efficiently,” Eadie said.
Craig Butz, Spokane parks recreation and entertainment division manager, said the city reduced its field fees after complaints from baseball and softball leagues, but noted that even the original fees were less than the average charged by other Washington cities. The park department projects that the sports complexes will need more than $100,000 in subsidies this year.
Eadie acknowledges that scheduling has been rough but noted that the city recently created a job to oversee the process.
“There definitely has been a learning process for parks and recreation,” Eadie said. “We’re in a time of transition.”
Officials don’t regret park bond
Despite the new budget complications, park officials don’t regret passage of the bond.
Former City Councilman Rob Crow, who served on a citizens advisory committee that oversaw spending for the bond, noted that some money went into an equipment replacement fund. He said with schools cutting back, improving city park facilities is even more important.
“There will always be a need that they are properly maintained and funded,” Crow said. “Having new facilities as opposed to dilapidated facilities will only make that job easier.”
Eric Sawyer, president and CEO of the Spokane Regional Sports Commission, said after years of neglecting sports fields, the bond was a good start in providing kids and adults quality fields and pools. But, he said, more are needed – especially for baseball. Sawyer called the new Dwight Merkel BMX track “one of the best BMX facilities on the West Coast” and the new softball complex and pools “awesome.” He believes Dwight Merkel could be positioned to earn enough revenue to pay for operations.
“This is an opportunity for us to finally have a showcase for a venue,” he said.