Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and a large group of seniors and youth advocates warned the Spokane Park Board on Tuesday to think twice before slashing the budgets of youth and senior centers.
“Without this center I know where these kids end up. They end up on the streets,” said Knezovich, who visited the Northeast Youth Center in Hillyard over the weekend. “They end up in my jail. That’s not where we need our kids.”
The message from the more than 20 people who testified at Tuesday’s park budget hearing appeared to resonate with the Park Board. Members directed Park Director Leroy Eadie to find $100,000 to finish restoring senior and youth center funding for 2012 to this year’s levels.
The department’s preliminary budget for 2012, released over the summer, slashed funding to the centers from $756,000 this year to $324,000. Last week, Eadie released a new budget that restored all but about $100,000 of the 2011 budget for the centers. He said most of the additional money was available after a park employee noticed the original budget mistakenly doubled the accounting budget line item.
About 100 people attended the hearing at Spokane City Hall. Many wore red as a sign of solidarity, along with small signs that said “Save our youth and senior centers.”
Spokane’s Parks and Recreation 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 10 percent or less of their budgets.
The Spokane Park Board is dealing with a gap of $1 million between the money it expects to have next year and the amount needed to maintain current service and employee levels.
Some park officials have argued that youth and senior centers are social programs that shouldn’t be funded by park money. Senior and youth center leaders argue that a majority of the work they do is recreation and that they perform their work for much less than the park department could by using volunteers, employees who earn less than city workers, and by attracting private donations.
Part of the impetus to focus cuts on the park’s recreation budget, including senior and youth centers, results from a 2010 park consultant report called “Roadmap to the Future” that recommends improving cost recovery – essentially putting more emphasis on fee-based programs.
Many who testified Tuesday were armed with statistics and were well-versed on the report. They noted that the Roadmap also reported demographics showing Spokane’s population aging and that it recommended expanding partnerships – not unlike what the park department has with the nonprofit groups that manage most of the city’s youth and senior centers.
Cuts won’t be off the table for 2013, and park officials plan to convene a group of center officials and others to review funding. Eadie said the board wants to better understand funding levels and consider cost-saving options such as consolidation. He said he can’t rule out cuts or even increases to center budgets in 2013 until after the evaluation.
“We’re going to go into next year with an open mind,” Eadie said.
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, noting continued budget struggles, said in an interview Monday that next year’s examination will consider “how we can maintain our focus on the people we serve but revise our funding model – because we must.”
At the Tuesday park meeting, many questioned why the department is increasing the budget for urban forestry at the same time it is cutting recreation. The proposed budget will increase forestry money to $486,000 from $325,000 this year.
“People are more important than trees,” said Katie Roley, a board member of the Northeast Youth Center who also has a son who attends.
Eadie said that public trees have been neglected in Spokane for too long. Officials also noted that while the program is slated for a large boost in funding next year, it remains a relatively small part of the department.
“Urban forestry has been from my perspective kicked around the city,” Eadie said. “We’re trying to fund it at an adequate level that maintains this asset that we have.”