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Budget cuts take a bite out of fun

POSTED: April 29, 2009 11:10 p.m.

The downturn in the economy has begun to affect the number of programs Gainesville’s Parks and Recreation department provides, but it hasn’t yet affected the cost of those programs.

Parks and Recreation officials are trying to come up with realistic revenue numbers for fiscal year 2010, and the agency’s deputy director Michael Graham told the City Council on Wednesday that projections do not include an increase in fees for services.

The department, like most government agencies, is facing a year of lagging revenues — facility rentals alone are down by 25 percent — and is expecting expenses to rise at the same time. Graham said the department expects electricity bills for the Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center to be $130,000 in fiscal year 2010.

To make up for lost revenues, Graham said the department is "streamlining services" and cutting those that do not have high participation rates.

"We can’t be everything to everybody," Graham said.

The result has been a reduction of 66 percent of the department’s wide variety of specialty day camps, the elimination of one of the regular day camp sites and special events that have not been historically well-attended.

Some of the casualties of the budget cuts include Bark in the Park, Baby-sitting Camp, Cop Camp and Hip-Hop Dance Camp, Graham said.

"We’ve said, ‘OK does it make sense for us to continue those?’ And in this case, we decided, ‘No, it does not,’ " Graham said.

But popular events such as Touch a Truck, the Daddy-Daughter dance, Princess Camp, and popular dance and fitness classes will stay for now, Graham said.

"We’re concentrating more on the day camps and cutting back just to those specialty camps that we know are going to fill up and we know people are going to want," Graham said.

The department also is focusing on the services the Frances Meadows center provides.

The center brings in nearly 40 percent of the department’s fee-based revenues.

"One of the things that is keeping our heads above water, no pun intended, is the Frances Meadows center," Parks Director Melvin Cooper said.

To mitigate rising expenses, the department also discontinued funding on maintenance projects and closed its less-efficient facilities such as the Green Street Pool, which needed at least $100,000 worth of upgrades to open this summer.

But more than 60 percent of the department’s budget is soaked up in personnel costs — a cost the department can neither escape nor ignore, Graham said.

Graham said the department reorganized, eliminated one management position to cut costs and renegotiated contracts for park maintenance.

"When you’re in the service industry, personnel is the heart of what you’re trying to do," Graham said. "So you don’t want to be too short on your personnel, but you also want to be efficient as much as possible."

Still, to balance its budget, the department has requested a little more than $30,000 from the city’s general fund, which mainly is funded with property taxes and sales taxes.

The City Council still has nearly $750,000 in expenses to cut from the general fund before it decides on a final budget in June, and city officials are looking harder for ways to make subsidiary agencies such as the city’s Solid Waste division and Parks and Recreation to become more independent.

Although the department’s cuts cannot make it independent from the general fund, this year’s request is $60,000 less than last year’s request, Cooper said.

"We, again, have really tried to take a hard look at this while still trying to maintain the services," Graham said.



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