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Discussion on Hall recreation program delayed
Commissioners waiting until Thursday to discuss separate proposals
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YMCA officials who were on-hand to pitch their plan for taking over county recreation services will have to wait until Thursday.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday postponed a discussion of the YMCA's proposal until Thursday, a move commissioners said would allow county staff enough time to put forward an alternative proposal to run the department on nearly half the funding it had in previous years.

"This will at least give us something to compare (the YMCA's proposal) to," said Commissioner Billy Powell, who along with Commissioner Craig Lutz, asked to postpone Tuesday's discussion.

Some commissioners said they hope to make a decision between the YMCA's proposal or the alternative county proposal at their meeting Thursday.

Funding for the Parks and Leisure Services Department is supposed to run out at the end of the month. When they passed the county budget in June, commissioners said they expected to have a new funding strategy for the department by September.

"We've got to vote on something on Thursday, because either we vote on this or the Y(MCA's) proposal or the money runs out," Powell said.

But Commissioner Ashley Bell said he may need more time to review both proposals.

"I've only heard generalizations from staff about what the plan is, and I'm just never comfortable about seeing the plan the day of and being asked to make a decision that serious on the spot," Bell said.

YMCA officials have submitted a plan for a takeover of some county recreation services they say will cut taxpayer support of county recreation by 20 percent in four years without raising user fees.

Their plan isn't for an all-inclusive takeover, however.

The YMCA's proposal specifically offers to take over the Mulberry Creek and East Hall community centers during a 10-month trial period.

The nonprofit is seeking $458,334 in county funding to support its efforts in that time.

The YMCA proposal claims the county will save money on the department's operation immediately.

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

But YMCA officials say they don't plan to leave athletics out of the equation, and that conversations on youth sports would come after the initial proposal.

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

County officials have said 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.

Since June, most talk for the future of the county's Parks and Leisure Services Department has centered on a possible privatization. In the last several days, however, commissioners and county staff have hinted at the assemblage of an alternative plan that would keep recreation services in county control.

Only about $1.3 million was budgeted for the department this fiscal year, which ends July 1, 2012.

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, commissioners said last week.

It also likely means fees for recreation services will rise.

County staff have, so far, kept their plans close to the vest, citing a need to finalize the proposal before making it public.

But commissioners say the county alternative will mean definite changes for recreation.

"I fully expect that the scope of services will be streamlined and reduced so as to provide for the most cost-efficient operation while still maintaining the most basic core services of the department," Powell said. "...It is my feeling that Hall County has come to and will continue to expect the quality parks and leisure service so as to continue the quality of life that we have all come to know and love."

Both Powell and Commission Chairman Tom Oliver said Tuesday that they are anxious to make a decision on the parks' future.

"I think this community deserves the right to know where they are and I think we've already had enough time..." Oliver said. "I think it's time to move this county forward."

Lutz, along with Bell, is not so sure he'll be ready to make that decision Thursday. Lutz expressed concerns he won't be able to compare the fiscal benefits of the two plans, because of previous accounting for the department's expenditures.

"I think it's going to take the county a little bit of time to get our accounting straightened up so we can figure out what exactly does it cost to run the Mulberry Creek Community Center," Lutz said.

Lutz says there is uncertainty in how much the county could save using the YMCA. County staff members have not yet been able to determine how much each community center costs to operate, Lutz said, because budget documents for the parks department do not delineate the costs of operating each center, only the cost of the whole department..
But Bell's concern goes beyond the budget.

Bell said voting on the proposals Thursday without discussing them first in a work session would be to act in an "unnecessary degree of haste."

The commissioner said even if it takes until the last commission meeting of the month, he wants a 30-day plan for how the department will be restructured, detailing who will lead the changes and how the new department will be staffed before making a decision.

"The budget is one thing," Bell said. "...But what is that going to mean for the mom who wants to sign their kids up for baseball? ... I don't think a budget says anything to them."