Parks Officials Struggle With Budget Cuts

Recreation board and town council meet on a sunny afternoon to

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Four members of the town council met with Payson's Parks and Recreation Board on a perfect summer Wednesday in a Rumsey Park ramada to talk about bad communication and worse budgets.

The town's recreation programs have boomed under director Rick Manchester in the past two years, with a 28 percent increase in fees and similar increases in participation this year alone. But a recession that stalled growth in the town's tax revenues forced a $3 million cut in the upcoming year's budget, which hit the parks in the gut.

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Payson Parks and Recreation director Rick Manchester explains various projects to his board and to town councilors during a meeting at Rumsey Park last week.

The parks board was rattled by the 10 percent cut, which actually translated into a 25 percent reduction in operations since the town elected not to cut staffing -- which accounts for about 60 percent of the budget. In addition, the plunge in building permits also cut off new money from the impact fees intended to pay for new facilities.

As a result, the parks department plans to close Taylor Pool in August, virtually eliminate routine maintenance, stall plan-ned expansions and improvements and curtail other park programs.

The budget crunch also caught the parks department in the midst of a series of ambitious plans, including a master plan for park facilities and a master plan for the development of the Events Center rodeo grounds. All of those planning efforts have been put on hold for lack of funds.

The joint council and parks meeting was called in part to improve communications be-tween the energetic but now flummoxed parks board and the newly elected majority on the budget bruised council.

Only four of the seven council members attended the session on a breezy summer afternoon near the rebuilt, pine-shaded tennis courts, children's playground and athletic fields, with a backdrop of kids laughing, the plonk of tennis balls and cries from the soccer game in progress.

The parks and recreation commissioners took advantage of the joint session to make a plaintive plea for better communications, since the recent abrupt shifts by the council upended months of planning efforts.

"I want to represent you guys," said commission vice chairman Mel Sorensen. "I just don't want to have problems like we've had in the past."

"Our 10-year plan has now been put on hold as a result of funding," said commission chairman Bruce Wilson. "We need to develop an agenda for the future and input from the council is going to save us an awful lot of time. We need to continue with a long-range plan."

The council members present praised the board's development of new facilities and the strong growth in both fees and participation, but offered little budget comfort.

Councilor Mike Vogel said that so far this year the town has processed only 31 building permits, compared to a normal average of perhaps 125 at this point in the year. The parks get about $1,200 for new facilities from each permit issued. Vogel noted that permits issued so far this year "aren't going to buy picnic tables" for the parks.

"There have to be some other sources of revenue for the parks -- although we've looked at just about everything besides raising chickens," said Vogel.

On the other hand, he said cutting the parks budget was agonizing. "Anyone that can listen to those kids giggle and laughing and then say ‘no' is a stronger man than I am."

Councilor Mike Hughes said the parks should develop a master plan and then give the council a priority list, so that the town can fund the most important things first until it runs out of money.

Manchester said the overall 10 percent reduction in the budget mandated by the council had squeezed every program.

For instance, the town had last year hosted Fourth of July games for kids, which drew about 30 participants. So as he struggled with the budget in late June, Manchester decided to eliminate that program next year. But this Fourth of July, 350 kids showed up to participate in the holiday activities.

The decision not to lay off staff means that the 10 percent overall cut turned into a 25 percent cut in operating funds.

As a result, the parks department cancelled virtually all capital spending and will do only maintenance related to health and safety concerns for the next year.

The discussion then wandered off into a brainstorm session on how to soften the impact of the cuts -- and bring in more money.

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin attended and promised to do her best to help find county funds to support the park programs.

Councilor Richard Croy wondered whether the town could get help from Star Valley, since its residents use Payson parks.

Manchester noted that surveys suggest that about 10 percent of the people who use Rumsey and Green Valley parks live outside the town, as do about 90 percent of the people who use the rodeo grounds Event Center.

But he said he hadn't approached Star Valley about budget help because "I don't think they'll come up with anything. We could force that issue by charging a use fee for non-residents," but he said that raised other problems.

In the end, no one seemed to have any ideas that would avert the immediate, painful cuts in park programs -- but the members of the commission and council agreed to plan a joint study session to develop a shared sense of the priorities for park upgrades once the recession ends and tax revenues pick up.

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