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Hall County parks transfer plans up in the air
Questions remain, deadline looms for county to turn over control
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Hall County's Parks and Leisure Services has one month of life left in its current incarnation.

After that, no one can say for sure what will happen.

County commissioners say they expect to hear a proposal from the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs for taking over certain aspects of the department at their Aug. 8 work session.

And it seems the idea of a revised fee structure for the current department to stand on its own financially no longer exists.

Parks officials were told they could present plans they put together for a revised fee structure for park services at the July 25 Board of Commissioners work session.

But when the agenda for that meeting was made public, the parks department wasn't on the table for discussion.

"I was surprised that it wasn't on the work session agenda," said Commissioner Billy Powell, who serves as the ex-officio member of the parks' governing board.

When Powell voted with Commissioners Ashley Bell, Craig Lutz and Scott Gibbs to pass a budget for the county that included no increase in the county tax rate to prop up general government operations, he also agreed to only fund the parks department until county officials could draw and implement a plan for running it without county tax dollars.

"Well, I thought that we had funded park and rec through basically the end of the year — through football season," Powell said.

The plan funded the department through Aug. 31, giving officials a window to evaluate alternatives and a little seed money for the future incarnation of the department.

Powell said he thought his vote for the budget June 30 gave officials enough time to come to a practical solution.

"Part of that was a revised fee schedule, hoping that it would be more self-sufficient," Powell said. "I was less interested in privatization and more interested in a revised fee schedule."

Two commissioners who spoke with The Times this week said they never knew they were to consider the possibility of a self-sufficient parks department.

"I'm unaware of that," Craig Lutz said. "And I'm unaware that anything has occurred around that."

Powell said he planned to communicate the plan at last week's work session. The commissioner said he has not yet followed up with county staff to see why the issue was not up for discussion.

"The time didn't present itself for me to call somebody when I was thinking about it," Powell said.

Parks and Leisure Services Director Greg Walker says he's received no direction on how to proceed with his department.

Another department official says the most common phrase at the parks office this month has been "I don't know."

"It's very hard to find out any answers," said Steve Hutson, athletic coordinator for the department.

No matter what happens at the end of this month, youth football season will start Sept. 10, as planned, Hutson said.

In the next few weeks, Hutson plans to issue schedules for the season. He says in a worst-case scenario, booster clubs will have to pay officials, a responsibility the county held in the past.

Board Chairman Tom Oliver, who proposed raising county taxes to save the department two months ago, says budget decisions made by the other four commissioners have left the county's parks department in a lurch.

"The staff has got their hands tied behind them, because they have no direction from the commission," Oliver said. "There's so many unknowns. It has me concerned."

Oliver wants to make sure the county isn't left holding the bag if one of the nonprofits chosen to take over county recreation services can't do the job. He's hoping any future deal with the YMCA or the Boys & Girls Clubs will include a provision that the organization's performance is bonded, much like the insurance a construction company would be required to have.

"What if they can't pay their bills, they can't make payroll and they've got all these programs going and the county has to step in and take all these programs over?" Oliver asked. "The county could be out for expenses."

Among his other concerns, Oliver doubts that the county can implement a new plan for the parks department by Sept. 1.

"There's no way," Oliver said. "There's no way you can implement it, because there's no funding. The funding is gone and the funding has got to be there.
"I think the commission needs to give direction."

But Lutz and Gibbs say the nonprofits will be able to take over by the Sept.1 start date. County staff met with YMCA officials Friday and have had at least one meeting with the Boys & Girls Clubs since July 1.

"We've been told by both of them that they can launch (the new program) very quickly," Gibbs said.

Lutz said a high-ranking YMCA official has promised that, if the organization assumes responsibility for aspects of the department, "they will probably hire on most of those employees."

Lutz says having the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs take over is the main option commissioners are considering at the moment, other than "that user-based fee thing that's being studied right now."

But there are two other alternatives and a quickly-approaching deadline to make a decision.

"We can continue business as usual, but if we do, it will hammer the reserves pretty bad," Lutz said. "Or, I guess a fourth option would be we can close it all down, which I don't think anybody wants to see."

Bell did not return a call seeking comment.