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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Parks faces nearly $1 million budget shortfall in 2020

The Central Promenade walkway through Riverfront Park, including the Howard Street Bridge, foreground, is shown Friday, June 21, 2019 in Spokane. More portions of Riverfront Park are re-opening to the public as work finishes on a $64 million redevelopment, which park officials hope will lead to increased revenue to help balance the budget for the city’s park system as a whole. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane park officials are taking a hard look at the books at the end of this summer with the prospect of a nearly $1 million budget deficit next year.

The budget scrutiny follows a hike in the state minimum wage that has increased Parks’ payroll costs as well as decisions by Parks and its independent board of citizen volunteers in recent years to provide free entry at municipal pools and buy two pieces of property.

Wages and salary costs are expected to jump by a bit more than the total cost of the budget deficit, and the moves to purchase properties and open up pool access have cost the department, in total, roughly the same amount it now must recoup in 2020. But officials say it’s difficult to point to an exact source of the budget shortfall.

Garret Jones, interim director of the Parks division at City Hall, said the process of trimming and aligning the budget takes place every year, he just wanted it to be more transparent with the Park Board for next year.

“This is common,” he said, though he noted the amount this year – between $890,000 and $900,000 – is greater than has been faced in previous years.

Earlier this month, the Spokane Park Board was given an initial look at the 2020 budget. The department’s preliminary budget shows expenses totaling $24.3 million next year, driven mostly by an increase in wages and salaries to park employees of nearly $1.2 million. Revenues are projected at $23.4 million. Most of that money will be transferred from the city’s general fund, supported by the payment of sales, property and utility taxes by residents, per the requirements of the Spokane City Charter.

Jones said last week that park officials in all areas would be looking at the popularity of some programs and where staff members could potentially be used in multiple roles in order to make up the shortfall. The discussion may also include an increase to some fees to recoup the increasing costs of putting on some programming.

“We really wanted to have a reset and look at what our actual costs are,” said Jones, who took over for retiring parks director Leroy Eadie this spring. “We wanted to strategically take a look at our budget forecast, and invest our dollars the most efficient way across the organization.”

Bob Anderson chairs the Park Board’s finance committee, which will be in charge of reviewing the parks division’s budget proposal and approving what, if any, changes will need to be made for next year. Anderson said he was confident park officials would be able to come up with a budget plan for the next several years.

“I don’t see it as a time for alarm, or anything like that,” Anderson said. “It’s a time for awareness.”

Jones said he didn’t yet have specifics on what programming might change, or how staffing might be altered to reduce costs for management of Spokane’s extensive parks system in 2020. But officials have told the Spokane Park Board they’ll have a detailed proposal for their review next month, complete with the potential consequences to the public of each decision to cut costs. Jones offered as an example a program fully staffed, seven days a week, that may see fewer workers on a particular day based on participation next year.

The division will also have to pay those workers more. Minimum wage will increase by $1.50 as required by state law next year, a change that will affect Parks’ many seasonal workers who maintain grounds and staff public pools and Riverfront Park.

Jones cited that increase, as well as the recent closure of several money-generating features in the downtown park as part of its redevelopment, as reasons for the larger deficit next year.

“The more that Riverfront Park comes online, is a huge benefit,” Jones said.

The system receives money through contributions from the city’s general fund, an amount that must be at least 8% of the total amount the city made in taxes for the previous fiscal year under a dictate in the City Charter that is unique in the region and nationwide. Increased tax receipts two years ago means the general fund contribution to parks will increase in 2020, to $15.1 million from $14.6 million. But that amount is not enough to offset the increased cost of doing business, park officials said.

In addition to that subsidy, park income comes from fees charged for admission and food services at attractions in Riverfront Park and recreation fees paid for activities that include, in the summer, swimming and diving lessons, camps and organized sports like softball and football.

Having Riverfront Park, and its new pavilion open, will contribute to revenues in the future, Jones said.

“Having now, that third leg of that stool really starting to hold its weight in Riverfront, that’s helped to get us back to where we need to be,” he said.

It will not be the first time the parks budget has received what officials are deeming “a reset.” When faced with budget deficits in 2012, the Park Board increased fees to use public ballfields, cut four staff members and decreased funding to youth and senior centers.

Former City Councilman Mike Allen served as the panel’s liaison to the Park Board at the time, and said the current panel may be facing the same tough conversations they had seven years ago.

“There was some pain involved,” Allen said. “It sounds like that time is upon the Park Board again.”

Certain decisions over the past couple of years, made to increase access to parks and support the development of an indoor prep sports facility near downtown, have limited the amount of reserve funds the division has for operations and some other projects.

Last year, the Park Board elected to eliminate entry fees to area pools. The decision was applauded as increasing access for low-income families, but came with a hit to the division’s bottom line estimated at around $200,000. Former Park Board President Chris Wright expressed concern at the time of that vote that the department was giving up revenue, but says the decision was made by the board “with its eyes open.”

“I think the reasons cited are all great ones, but it’s expensive,” Wright said at the time, adding in an interview last week that he continued to be worried that the politically popular decision would exacerbate budget concerns in the future.

Anderson said he didn’t believe there was an appetite on the current board for changes to free swim, but that he’d be interested in proposals that might increase revenue from other services, like dedicated time for lap swimming and lessons.

“I would prefer finding more revenue,” Anderson said.

The division has also recently been faced with multiple costs for land acquisition, totaling a little more than $900,000, that didn’t make it into long-term budget plans. The Park Board agreed to set aside $650,000 in 2018 to help the Spokane Public Facilities District buy a building formerly occupied by a dance studio to make way for construction of a new prep sports complex. Much of that money comes from a transfer from the city’s utility department to cover the costs of building the so-called “orange bridge” near the Looff Carrousel in the rebuilt Riverfront Park.

The Parks division also footed the bill for purchase of trail land on the South Hill bluffs overlooking Latah Creek after an illegal road was bulldozed in April 2017. The Park Board agreed to spend up to $270,000 to buy the property, seen as a key piece linking public trail systems in the area. The department used reserve dollars to fund the purchase.

Allen cautioned against looking at those dollars as potentially funding future salaries, however, as they reside in accounts set aside to cover more long-term costs.

Jones said Parks is on better financial footing than it was a year ago. While a decline in the amount of money the division has on hand at the end of the year can’t go on forever, he said, cost reductions would be made to avoid loss of services to park visitors.

“We’re playing a little bit of catch-up, but all this hard work we’re doing now is going to help us, and help streamline this process moving forward,” he said.