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Budget cuts to take big bite out of Hall County parks
Privatizing succeeds in Lumpkin
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A group plays basketball Saturday at the Mulberry Creek Community Center. Hall County community centers could be the target of budget cuts for the next fiscal year. - photo by Tom Reed

As the possibility of a 78 percent budget cut casts a cloud of uncertainty over Hall County's 24 parks, government officials seem confident of only one thing: Change is coming.

The proposed budget, which the Hall County Board of Commissioners will vote on later this month, includes a $2 million cut in funding to Parks and Leisure Services.

However, it has yet to be determined what these reductions would mean to the services provided, several county commissioners and members of the Parks and Leisure Services Board said Friday.

"About the safest thing I can say at this point, is (parks in Hall County) will look different" said Commissioner Billy Powell, an ex-officio member of the parks board. "If it goes through at a 78 percent reduction, then one can only imagine just what that means."

Powell said the proposal's goal would be to eliminate as many operating costs as possible. This may mean closing several community centers and parks.

The Hog Mountain Sports Complex, Spouts Springs Sports Complex and facilities at Chestatee High School likely will be unaffected because they share maintenance costs with the Board of Education, Powell said.

However, all other parks may be on the chopping block.

"From a personal perspective, I hate the idea of any of our parks closing," said Jessica Tullar, a member of the parks board. "But it's a very difficult time."

Park and community center closings could have major implications for many in the community.

Jerry Quiroga and Francisco Vas, while taking a break Friday from playing basketball at Mulberry Creek Park & Community Center, said they would be disappointed if the center is closed.

"I would hate to see that happen, so whatever we can do to help," said Quiroga, a South Hall resident. "(The center) gives people something to do that's better than hanging out or getting involved in bad things, like drugs and all that."

Vas, also of South Hall, said the news about the possible closing was "shocking." He said he takes his children to the center on his days off from work and his wife does likewise.

Marci Summer, Mulberry Creek's facility manager, said the center "has been embraced by the community. We've had so much support and feedback on what we're able to offer."

The facility, which opened in November 2009, has had 70,000 visitors since July 1, or the start of the current budget year. It has featured a wide range of programs, including a wheelchair soccer team.

"Staff has put a lot of heart into this community center. They work very hard; they have volunteered to do things above and beyond the job on a daily basis," Summer said.

"They love this community. They are here because they believe that facilities like ours are important for the growth and development of the community as a whole."

A copy of The Times' Friday story on the county's budget woes was taped to the front door and copies of the story were available at the front desk, along with slips of paper with commissioners' names and email addresses.

Though much is on the chopping block, several government officials said they would try to preserve programs like tee-ball and Little League baseball.

"That may require that the parents step up and take care of some of the maintenance on some of it," said Craig Herrington, ex officio member of the parks Board. "I don't have a real problem with that, as long as they can continue to have the games."

Other options discussed include supporting youth athletics through contributions from businesses and municipalities.

Closing the parks and community centers would affect more than just athletics, though.
"I think it's a quality-of-life issue that people depend on and expect," Powell said. "It's also a factor when companies look at relocating here. What's the quality of life for employees? So it's a huge issue."

In order to avoid major closings, several board members said they are considering the possibility of privatizing the parks and community centers.

This was an option White and Lumpkin counties recently turned to when they built partnerships with YMCA.

Steve Proper, executive director of the newly named Lumpkin County Parks YMCA, said Lumpkin County still owns the facilities but YMCA has been contracted to run the programs and operations.

"Lumpkin County was really strapped, like Hall County was," he said. "They had a lot of financial difficulties and were thinking about defunding a lot of programs."

Instead, the county chose to privatize, a move Proper said was successful.

Residents still don't have to pay membership fees but resources and grants made available through YMCA have helped them remain financially stable.

Not only did Proper say they retained all their services, but they have added new programs and saw an increase in athletic participation.

"It's been going real good," he said. "Things have improved."

But no matter which direction Hall County decides to go, Parks and Leisure will certainly look different.

"We've heard a resounding message of ‘don't raise my taxes,'" Powell said. "Well, you can't have your cake and eat it, too. You can't have lower operating costs and maintain the same level of services. So cuts have to come from somewhere. And to some people, parks are nonessential. It's just a time where tough decisions have to be made."

The budget proposal also includes cuts to several other services including libraries, emergency medical services and the Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center.

To offset the deep cuts, Chairman Tom Oliver has proposed a 1.41 mill tax increase. Such a move would generate an additional $8 million in revenue, leaving many services intact but still making cuts, including 55 county positions.

"Once we start closing libraries and parks ... laying off firemen and some of the others ... (and) doing away with matching 401(k), we're going to end up with a county that we're not going to recognize nor like," Oliver said.

Times staff writer Jeff Gill contributed to this report.

 

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