Parks Getting A Little Help From Friends

Booster group donates money to keep town’s leagues dribbling through February

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Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation this week agreed to donate $3,700 to the cash-strapped town to keep two youth basketball leagues and one adult league operating for the first two months of the year, said Bill Ensign, the group’s chairman.

In addition, the group will soon launch a fund-raising campaign hoping to scare up the $50,000 needed to keep a more extensive group of youth and adult programs in operation through the end of the current fiscal year in June.

“When you divide it by the number of people who use the parks — it’s not a big donation,” said Ensign. “I think we can do it. I think the thing to do is to get to folks and ask them to step up — see what we can do.”

Anyone wishing to make a tax-deductible donation can send it to Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation, 1000 N. Beeline Highway #143, Payson, AZ 85541.

Already, one resident has donated $5,000, which gives the Friends a head start on the $8,000 it will need to save the parks programs in March.

The Payson Town Council’s recent decision to cut spending by 16 percent to get ahead of projected declines in sales tax revenue delivered a crushing blow to the parks department.

The council approved a plan to lay off the parks director and almost all of the part-time workers who provide the once-booming recreation programs, most of which bring in nearly as much in fees as they cost to run.

Cuts in the budget documents indicate spending on parks could drop by 37 percent, compared to a 10-percent decline for police and a 1-percent drop for the town attorney’s office.

A sharp drop in sales tax revenue in October yielded a projected $4.5 million decline in total revenues by June. Caught with almost no reserves carried forward from last year when revenue fell some $3 million behind projections, the council faced the choice between imposing immediate cuts or borrowing some $300,000 from the water department. The council opted for the cuts, which included laying off or letting go seven full-time workers and about 120 part-time workers, mostly the people who run parks programs in the spring and summer.

The council avoided major cuts in the police and fire departments, but hit parks and recreation with the layoff of the director, cancellation of work on the trails program and eliminating part-timers.

Ironically, the parks department had made big strides in the past two years in promoting increased use of its programs. Other departments found themselves largely idled by the evaporation of building projects, but the parks programs were on track for a 40-percent increase in use this year and a 90-percent increase in use over the past two years. About 3,400 people participate in the organized parks and recreation leagues and classes annually, and Taylor Pool reported 24,000 paid admissions during the summer.

The blow to the parks budget also coincided with the voter rejection of a plan to partner with the YMCA, which would have taken over operation of Taylor Pool and built a gym and fitness center with donated money. That plan would have saved the parks department about $140,000 annually.

The current budget would keep Taylor Pool open for at least the first month of the summer, although most of the money spent on the pool would show up in next year’s budget, which starts in July.

Most of the youth programs break even, but they might not be able to operate if the town follows through on the plan to lay off part-time workers and the Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation can’t raise the money to keep them operating.

The parks budget before the cuts stood at about $1.1 million, compared to $4.7 million for police, $2.6 million for fire, $500,000 for the town attorney’s office, $886,000 for community development, $424,000 for financial services, $552,000 for information technology and $297,000 for the town manager’s office.

Capital improvements for streets took the biggest hit in the budget cuts, with the cancellation of all existing projects and a reduction to bare bones maintenance — although the street department itself didn’t lose any employees.

The budget plan adopted by the council itemized more than $400,000 in cuts to parks programs, including all of the money for development of a comprehensive trails system the town had hoped to make a keystone of its pitch to visitors seeking a “cool mountain town” getaway.

Based on those numbers, parks could suffer a 37-percent cut, compared to a 16-percent cut townwide.

The police department is slated for a 10-percent cut — nearly half of that by postponing purchase of a computer program to create a database and GPS location of all calls to the police.

The town attorney’s office would suffer the fewest cuts. The $500,000 budget would shrink by $6,000, mostly in reduced travel and periodicals. That works out to a 1-percent reduction.

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