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Our Views: There’s no Plan B

Commissioners’ misguided parks scheme may leave fields empty, save little money

POSTED: August 7, 2011 1:00 a.m.

Like a bungling buffoon in a kid's cartoon, Hall County commissioners have painted themselves into a corner with their handling of the county's recreation department, and at this point there's no clear path to a solution without leaving a lot of footprints in the paint.

When the Board of Commissioners approved the current year's budget at the end of June, it allotted funding for Parks and Leisure Services through the end of August, hoping by that time to have in place a plan to shift the program to private operation, hopefully to be run by the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County.

Well, we're in the second week of August, and at this point it's pretty clear nobody yet has an idea of what's going on.

Just in the past week, Commissioner Ashley Bell has said the department has funding to last through the fall; Commissioner Billy Powell said he thought it was financed to the end of the year; and newly appointed Assistant Administrator Marty Nix said his understanding was that funding ends Sept. 1. Nix is now responsible for oversight of the parks department since director Greg Walker left the position last week.

Walker perhaps summed up the situation best when he said, "Basically they have a Plan A. Their Plan A is for the YMCA and the Boys (& Girls) Club to take over ... the stuff that they can do. And Plan B was there was no Plan B."

So far the Boys & Girls Clubs have said they won't be partnering with the county on anything. The YMCA has submitted a proposal to take over operation of three community center programs, with financial support from the county to do so, but has no interest in activities outside the community centers.

So what is Plan B? That, apparently is still a matter of debate.

Those involved in addressing the problem can't even seem to agree on what options for doing so have been discussed. Walker and Powell both said a plan for raising user fees as a means of increasing revenues had been prepared, but for some reason it was never presented to commissioners for consideration.

The problem isn't that any of the ideas being debated by commissioners for saving money and shifting responsibilities for operation of the parks department are fatally flawed, but rather that commissioners have attempted to make such a major philosophical move in a matter of weeks without sufficient planning and analysis to assure any degree of success.

Jumping into action without fully understanding the issues involved has been a hallmark of the current commission to date. One need look no further than the firing of top officials at the beginning of the year as evidence of the "act first, think later" mentality.

This week, the county will discuss whether it wants to partner with the YMCA on programming at three community centers. The YMCA proposal is long on paperwork and short of detailed financial information, but does include the observation that after four years, the county should be able to save 20 percent over what it now spends for those programs. Is that the level of financial relief commissioners had in mind?

The YMCA is a great organization, but before commissioners go too far in forging an alliance, it is incumbent that they review the Y's financial picture to make sure it can do all that it promises. And at some point the issue of whether the county is comfortable legally in committing tax funds to a Christian-based organization has to be addressed, because it's almost certain to be challenged by someone somewhere along the line.

Even if the YMCA proposal makes sense and is put into action, there still has to be some plan for the rest of the parks department. Private groups and booster clubs can take over some aspects of organizing and operating youth sports leagues, but there still are park lands to upkeep and maintain and oversight responsibility for any private groups using county facilities.

Already there is talk that local ball teams are looking to enter leagues in programs run by nearby counties. Is that really what we want for Hall County: To be thought of as the neighborhood moocher too cheap to provide for itself?

It certainly will be no boon to the county's growth and development if it becomes a bedroom community without the amenities needed to attract employers and a future job base.

At budget crunch time, commissioners made a misguided decision to gut parks and recreation without really understanding what it was they were doing. As the clock ticks down to Sept. 1, it is increasingly clear that too little thought went into what was essentially an exercise in political posturing.

What it all means at this point is impossible to say. It is likely commissioners will shift money from other sources to keep parks operational in some fashion for the immediate future, though doing so is a Band-aid and not a solution.

The Y proposal may have some merit, though comprehensive and detailed analysis is going to be necessary before anyone knows for sure. Certainly there remains the possibility, maybe probability, that some park facilities will be closed and services discontinued.

Ironically, some residents who were most adamantly opposed to any sort of tax increase to balance the county budget are sure to be complaining the loudest when recreational sports programs are canceled or user fees raised to ridiculous levels to make the programs self-sufficient.

Earlier this year we thought the craziest notion to come before the commission board was a suggestion to have a park without bathrooms. Little did we know that, in a matter of months, the whole parks program would be in the toilet.



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