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Backup plan for Hall County parks is in works
County leaders seek funding for recreation after nonprofits decline to carry the load
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Hall County's leaders still won't say exactly what will happen to taxpayer-funded recreation programs in the county at the end of the month, but they say they aren't going to let Parks and Leisure Services completely disappear.

For the last several days, county officials have worked to come up with a plan for the department after Sept. 1.

The 2012 budget made little financial provision for the department after that date as commissioners looked for alternative funding and privatization of recreation services.

The decision on the department's future is expected this week. Tuesday, the YMCA will present a proposal it promises will cut taxpayer support of county recreation by 20 percent in four years without raising user fees.

But that plan isn't for an all-inclusive takeover of recreation services, and any alternative or supplemental plan to keep the department or portions of it under county control likely will rely on the reserve fund, and mean an increase in user fees and further staff reductions.

The YMCA submitted a plan last week to take over the Mulberry Creek and East Hall community centers during a 10-month trial period. It is seeking $458,334 in county funding to support its efforts in that time.

The proposal calls for decreasing county funding for Parks and Leisure Services by some 20 percent over a four-year period, however, and claims the county will save money on the department's operation immediately.

There is uncertainty, however, in how much the county could save. Commissioners told The Times on Friday that staff members have not yet been able to determine how much each community center costs to operate.

YMCA Chief Executive Officer Rich Gallagher said the organization estimated the costs from information provided on community center programs and interviews conducted with current staff.

Budget documents for the parks department do not delineate the costs of each center, only the cost of the whole department.

"They've never had to know," Commissioner Craig Lutz said. "It's always been kind of a gross budget number for all of parks and rec that has never been itemized out."

According to its proposal, the YMCA seeks to decrease department expenses, expand programs and increase participation in county parks and leisure services.

The plan does include "decreasing or modifying staffing through elimination of positions or changes to any position that do(es) not enhance, support or add to the quality of the park's operations."

Gallagher says the YMCA plans to keep all of the department's current staff for now.

"We want to make sure there's a smooth transition going forward," he said. "The salaries and staffing would stay the same; the rates for the community centers would stay the same."

The nonprofit's proposal also does not mention one of the biggest divisions of the county agency: youth sports.

But Gallagher says the YMCA doesn't plan to leave athletics out.

"We believe that it's best to keep the sports programs and the facilities together," he said.

Gallagher said the nonprofit didn't include sports programs in its proposal because there simply wasn't enough time.

"There are a lot of things after this proposal that we'll have to go through and get honed in as we go through it," Gallagher said.

Gallagher says the organization can cut the county's costs by adding revenue from expanding programs and fundraising. The organization's proposal to cut costs over a four-year period appeals to Lutz.

"As their services grow, it will translate into less contribution from the taxpayer," Lutz said. "I told our staff (Friday) that I don't know many government operations that trim 20 percent in that same amount of time."

But the lack of breadth of the YMCA's proposal left some commissioners uncertain.

"It was not as all-encompassing as I was thinking it was going to be," said Commissioner Billy Powell. "I'm very anxious to ask some questions and get some clarifications on some areas that weren't covered in their proposal."

If commissioners choose to partner with the YMCA, there are other aspects of the department that have yet to be planned for.

The YMCA proposal also doesn't cover field maintenance and utility costs for outdoor facilities.

County officials say they will take bids for private contractors in those roles.

And the proposal doesn't include a plan for the Chicopee Agricultural Center, which county officials say they can make self-sufficient with a few tweaks that likely will reduce free rentals.

Alternative plans to the partnership with the YMCA include either moving money currently budgeted for other departments or dipping into the county's reserve fund.

It also would increase fees.

If the county kept control of the department, officials say the department's budget would have to be increased to about $1.9 million.

Currently, the department's budget is about $1.3 million, less than half of last year's $3.1 million.

"We're still working on where all that money's coming from," said Tim Sims, acting finance director for the county.

The alternative plan, whether or not it includes the partnership with the YMCA, has yet to be made public. It likely won't be a part of the commission's discussion Tuesday, either.

County officials say that's because the plan isn't final. Staff members are hesitant to say where the money to prop up Parks and Leisure Services might come from because no one has officially authorized making more money available.

"Ultimately, any funding allocation would have to be provided by approval and direction of the board of commissioners," County Administrator Randy Knighton said.

But Chairman Tom Oliver isn't as unsure.

"It's got to come out of the reserves," Oliver said.

Lisa Johnsa, former interim finance director, estimated last month that the county's reserve fund equaled about $9 million. Commissioners already have dipped into that fund, allocating about $708,650 to shore up a deficit for the new fiscal year budget.

Government accounting organizations encourage a reserve of at least two months' expenses. For Hall, that would mean a reserve fund of $14.2 million.

Lutz and Commissioner Ashley Bell say that in a best-case scenario, they won't have to rely heavily on reserves. Instead, they hope money can be found through savings in other departments.

Though the funding mechanism is uncertain, Oliver says he supports whatever alternatives that may come forward.

He never supported privatizing recreation.

"I don't think there's a concrete plan, but I can assure you that we're not going to shut the parks down," Oliver said.

But it's certain that money for the current operation is running out. The budget commissioners approved June 30 leaves "a small portion" of money to support a transition, but won't fund it much past the next several weeks.

"There is a small portion of money (to get the department past Sept. 1), but that money, given (the department's) nature and given its magnitude, would not go much beyond that period of time," Knighton said.

Lutz says the county will have a plan by the time the money runs out. He says the county also has the time and the ability to execute whatever changes by the end of the month.

Commissioners are expected to make a final decision on that plan Thursday.

"There may be some challenges going forward, but I don't think it will take us too long to get back up to speed," Lutz said. "It may be a speed bump, but we can get over it."

And though the future of Parks and Leisure Services remains in limbo, Powell says the process has pointed out flaws of the current government operation — the department's accounting procedures, for example — and forced county leaders to think critically about how to provide services more efficiently.

"Either way we come out will be an improvement over where we were," he said.