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Friday, October 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Parks traipses into 2021 with cautious budget

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 12, 2020

Pig Out in the Park patrons stream in and out of Riverfront Park. The popular event – like many others – was canceled this year because of the pandemic. (DAN PELLE)
Pig Out in the Park patrons stream in and out of Riverfront Park. The popular event – like many others – was canceled this year because of the pandemic. (DAN PELLE)

The city’s Parks and Recreation division plans to remain cautious but nimble as it plans for 2021.

The Parks Board approved a 2021 budget last week that calls for no new full-time staff, no new programs and no expansion of current programs in Parks and Recreation.

The $20.3 million Park Fund budget, a 1.2% drop from the previous year, is partly predicated on a pandemic that has been unpredictable.

It’s unclear how the coronavirus – which caused Parks to cancel 214 of 250 planned events and countless programs in 2020 – will continue to affect Parks and Recreation revenues into 2021.

“We don’t know when certain phases are going to happen, we don’t know what 2021 is going to bring,” Parks Director Garrett Jones told the City Council’s Urban Experience Committee on Monday.

Whatever happens, Parks is trying to be flexible. One of Jones’ major goals as cold weather approaches is for Parks and Recreation to “pump positive programs, positive influence into the community to keep the spirits high through the winter months,” Jones said.

The budget is a road map, Jones said, but Parks and Recreation will have to be able to make a quick turn depending on what phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan Spokane is in.

The budget calls for flat revenues from programs in 2021, but if activity continues to be restricted, Parks and Recreation will have to check its spending on things like the hiring of seasonal employees.

Spokane is unusual in how it funds its public parks.

The City Charter requires that the city adopt a budget that allocates at least 8% of the previous year’s general fund expenditures toward Parks and Recreation.

In practice, that requirement accounts for about 70% of the Parks and Recreation budget. The remaining 30% of revenue typically consists of revenues from events, such as concerts, and programs including amateur sports leagues – all of which took a hit in 2020.

Because its funding source is retroactive – based on the current year general fund spending, not the upcoming year – Parks and Recreation’s revenue did not drop off a cliff.

However, Jones said Parks wouldn’t wait .

“We just want to do what we can to plan for the future so we don’t have these big spikes and valleys in our level of service,” Jones said.

The 2021 budget will not call for any additional full-time staff and includes a semi-freeze on hiring. New programs will not be considered unless they don’t cost money, and ongoing programs won’t be expanded.

“We want to prepare and save now so we can bridge those gaps in the future if there’s any potential reduction,” Jones said.

The 2021 budget approved by the Parks Board calls for less spending than it predicts in revenues. If all goes to plan, it will be able to toss about $317,000 into savings at the end of the year, which could come in handy if the economic recession is protracted.

The Parks and Recreation spending plan is incorporated into Mayor Nadine Woodward’s preliminary city budget for 2021, which totals $989 million and was introduced last week.

Jones attempted to find the silver linings in a difficult 2020, saying Parks and Recreation was able to learn and analyze much about how it operates by entering a “core service model” and working to find creative solutions to an onslaught of unexpected problems.

“We want to really kind of touch on what went well in 2020 and how do we build off that,” Jones said.

In 2020, the city’s public pools never opened, 1,161 reservations of athletic fields were canceled, and 3,366 programs, camps, swim lessons, sports leagues, and other plans were canceled.

At the same time, the city’s parks were some of the few public places residents could enjoy during the most severe period of coronavirus restrictions.

“Our parks were that safe place to enjoy,” Jones said.

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