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Board makes no decision on Hall parks
Parks board stuck until the commission submits its new budget
Cabe Harrsion shoots baskets in the gymnasium at the East Hall Community Center Monday afternoon before going to work in the evening. Park officials have considered raising fees for services like this to make the department less reliant on tax dollars.

A meeting of the Hall County Parks and Leisure Services board Monday raised more questions than it provided answers to the agency's ongoing budget struggle.

With no guarantee of how the Hall County Commission plans to fund the agency in the coming fiscal year, the board that directs the operation of the county parks agency made no decisions Monday on how to allocate its resources.

But despite the uncertainties, it seems very likely that using county parks will cost more in the future.

Facing an $11.5 million deficit as they decide to fund general government operations, commissioners will decide Thursday on a spending plan to carry them through the fiscal year that begins the following day.

Two proposals have been publicly floated: one that seeks to bridge the gap with austere cuts to services, including a proposed shutdown of nearly all county parks, and another that keeps most parks open and softens the blow of the budget ax to other departments with a millage rate increase of at least 1.41 mills.

Neither budget scenario has the support it needs from commissioners to become final Thursday.

Other commissioners say they are working on another plan, but on Monday, that plan had not been made public.

It has been no secret, though, that commissioners have been looking for ways to salvage the county's parks department while at the same time reducing its reliance on tax dollars.

Most of the discussion in Monday's more than hourlong meeting centered on how to make Parks and Leisure Services more self-sufficient.

Parks Director Greg Walker said the agency would not be able to completely rely on fees for service.

Commissioners asked Walker to look at generating an additional $3 million in revenue based on user fees alone. The result, he said in a report provided to parks board members Monday, would undercut the agency's mission to provide "affordable recreation opportunities" to Hall County residents.

For the Chicopee Agricultural Center alone, he said, rental rates would double. Both Walker and Chicopee facility manager Robert Dwyre said the rates would drive away customers, rather than reel in revenue.

"I don't think Churchill Downs charges that much," Dwyre said.

Added Walker: "When you put the numbers to paper, nobody's going to use it."

No other public recreation agency in the state is self-sustaining, Walker said.

"I know from my past, a department is considered as doing a good job if it captures 25 percent of its costs in user fees," Walker said.

The history of user fees was hard for Walker to track down, he said. He believes the fees for youth sports were not implemented until January 2003. At maximum, an athlete pays about $20 to the county to participate in a youth sports program.

And while he said the current fee structure supports the department's mission of affordability, Walker added the department should look at raising the fees at least a little in the coming months.

Commissioner Billy Powell said he would like to look at making fewer events free to help the Chicopee Agricultural Center recuperate costs.

Powell also asked Walker to return to the board in July with a new fee structure for county parks.

And other commissioners are expected take a close look at the agency in the coming days as they try to find a budget that at least three of them can agree on.

Walker told the board he is supposed to meet today with Commissioner Ashley Bell and Interim Finance Director Lisa Johnsa about future privatization of parks services.

The board closed its meeting Monday with little certainty about the future of the agency or its future viability as a decision-making body.

Members said they would be able to better make decisions once they know the commission's final budget decision in July.

Board member Tommy Sandoval said three commissioners had given him a verbal commitment to continue funding the parks agency for one month at its current level before instituting whatever changes will occur.