Contracts Spur Painful Budget Debate

Budget woes haunt $94,000 bid for parks master plan

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Expensive contracts with consultants to come up with a master plan for parks and a sign and landscaping ordinance on Thursday spurred council disagreements in the shadow of a $5 million budget shortfall.

The councilors ultimately approved a scaled-down, $75,000 contract to plan future park facilities and a $42,000 contract to come up with a sign and landscape design plan, especially for the highway frontage.

However, the approvals came only after a vigorous debate about whether the town could afford the new studies in the wake of plunging revenue that has left the town an estimated $5 million short in its $30 million budget.

Parks and Recreation Director Rick Manchester's request for $94,000 for a park plan provoked the most discussion.

The town's Parks and Recreation Commission had strongly supported the contract with a consultant to prepare a plan for current and future parks. The report would include hearings and surveys to find out what sorts of facilities residents want, plans to upgrade existing parks and a study on how to finance park improvements and expansions. The study would include an analysis as to whether to raise the current $1,200 impact fee on each new house built.

Manchester said the parks board strongly supported the need for a master plan, even though the scope of the work didn't include two ongoing proposals -- a major expansion of the facilities at the rodeo grounds and a proposed pool and gym complex in partnership with the YMCA.

Manchester said the town has about $215,000 in a recreation fund built up from those impact fees, including $75,000 previously budgeted for this study, $20,000 for new trails and $116,000 for new playground equipment at Rumsey Park. He recommended postponing the new playground equipment to pay for the proposed master plan study.

The proposal drew mixed reactions.

"I don't think the timing is good," said Vice Mayor Tim Fruth. "I just can't support spending $100,000."

Two weeks ago the council learned that revenues have fallen $5 million behind projections. The council members don't normally get updates on town spending and revenue, so several council members have expressed concern about spending money in light of the financial storm clouds.

Mayor Bob Edwards reluctantly supported the proposed $94,000 study, one third of which would pay to gather resident preferences, with another $16,000 going into an effort to study how to finance the proposed improvements. "I agree that this is the time to do the planning -- it's critical that we do it."

Councilor John Wilson agreed. "We need a master plan to know where we're going."

Councilor Andy Romance said the town should instead focus on finishing and implementing other, smaller scale recreation plans already completed. "I'm afraid another overall master plan will just be sitting there for a long time" for lack of money to invest in parks.

Councilor Mike Vogel broke the developing deadlock when he proposed the council send the idea back to the parks and recreation commission to trim the cost to $75,000.

That idea ultimately got six votes, with Councilor Wilson dissenting on the grounds the town should do the full study recommended by the parks board.

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