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Lack of funds worries parks and rec officials
Gainesville department has been putting off needs, repairs
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Trimming the fat is only healthy for so long.

That was the argument a board member for the Gainesville Parks and Recreation Department made Thursday as department officials told the City Council about a weariness with balancing declining revenues with higher demands for their services.

“We’re sort of in a bad situation,” said Sam Richwine, chairman of the city parks and recreation board.

For years, the department, like many in local government, has dealt with smaller allocations as the government weathered the economic recession.

But unlike the city’s community development department, which has fewer demands for service with a recessed economy, parks officials said Thursday that the troubled economy has sent more people their way.

“More people are looking to us for their recreational pursuits,” Deputy Parks Director Michael Graham told the council Thursday.

City officials are currently cobbling together their budget plans for the next fiscal year, which begins in July.

While official proposals aren’t yet clear, City Manager Kip Padgett has asked each department head to present a spending plan similar to the one approved last year.

But the parks agency’s director warned Thursday that the department won’t be able to continue as it has for much longer.

“There comes a time that my magic of pulling a rabbit out of a hat is not going to happen anymore,” Parks Director Melvin Cooper said.

Cooper and Graham spoke of a number of needs the department has put off for a while, including a need for repairs to city trails and another need residents expressed in a survey to renovate restrooms at city parks.

Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center, too, is due some maintenance.

Tax revenue for the department, which is financed with a special property tax rate, has been a victim of the high rate of foreclosures and general decline in property values in the city.

No one is yet talking numbers about the city government’s expected revenues for the year to come — the tax digest for the coming year likely won’t be available for another two weeks — but real estate values declined in 2011 and the city’s property tax revenues will, no doubt, take another hit.

Padgett will present a full city budget to the council May 10 based on the city finance department’s projections

for tax revenues.
He has, in the past four months, suggested he may ask the council to consider rolling up the city’s millage rate to restore city revenues. He said Thursday, however, that he’s still unsure whether he will make that request in two weeks.

Under Georgia law, a roll-up in property tax rates isn’t officially considered a tax increase, because the rates only rise enough for the government to maintain its revenue when property values decline.

“We may have to look at recommending a roll-up, depending on what the (tax digest) looks like in the last two weeks,” Padgett said.

Despite the gloomy outlook for property tax revenues, the city as a whole has a diverse revenue stream, and Padgett said the news isn’t all bad. Revenues in other areas may help mitigate the property tax problem.

“Sales taxes have been climbing, which was good news,” he said.

But the parks department doesn’t share in sales tax revenues, and Cooper has also mentioned asking council to consider a millage rate roll-up in the past. He also wasn’t sure Thursday if the millage rate request would be part of his final budget proposal to council.

But he didn’t denounce it.

“That would be great as far as being able to make us whole,” Cooper said.

Last year, the Parks and Recreation Department earmarked some $369,000 of its reserve fund to balance its budget for the current fiscal year.

Cooper said the money hasn’t been needed yet and the department is currently operating under its budgeted plan. But he still doesn’t like the idea of taking from his savings to satisfy current spending needs.

“We can’t continue to use fund balance money for that,” he said.

The department’s only other revenue stream, fed by charges for services, is seeing some mild improvement this year over last, officials said.

Graham said the increase is due in part to higher participation rates and gradual increases in fees for some programs.

But Cooper told the council Thursday that fees aren’t the answer to the department’s needs, adding that the department has to limit fee hikes to cover program costs since it is a government agency.

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