Volunteers, Donors Save Parks Programs

Friends group prepares to mount renewed fund-raising drive to save kids programs

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Mary Ward takes off with a great start and gets her arms churning right away as she backstrokes to the other end of the pool during a 25-yard heat at the Taylor Pool Swim Meet, Saturday, June 27.

Six months ago, Payson’s parks and recreation programs faced devastation in the form of bone-deep budget cuts that had eliminated all the part-time and seasonal positions.

But with the end of the fiscal year approaching, the town was forced to cancel only two or three programs — thanks to perhaps $14,000 donated by Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation and a tripling of the number of volunteers.

Moreover, the Friends group has launched a fresh effort to raise maybe $16,000 for next year — including the money to fund the child summer and spring recreation programs and the free summer concerts in the park.

“They’re just an absolutely wonderful group and they can’t get praise enough from us,” said Payson Trails and Outdoor Recreation Coordinator Mary McMullen.

“The community really stepped up,” said Friends President Bill Ensign of the group’s effort to compensate for a nearly 35 percent reduction in the parks budget. The town council eliminated some $150,000 for part-time workers, mostly the people running recreation programs.

Still, the scramble for enough help to maintain programs remains constant. For instance, the town needs about a dozen volunteers to stage its extensive Fourth of July activities — but at the moment has only three, said McMullen.

Since absorbing the cuts in December, the parks department has done a study on which programs pay for themselves in the fees they charge. In the proposed budget for the year that starts in July, those programs will pay for their own part-time staff — mostly referees for the adult and youth athletic programs.

Town programs have 12,000 participants

The town’s programs since January have involved some 12,000 participants, including 8,100 at the event center, 1,000 in youth sports, 800 at special events, 120 in outdoor recreation, and 2,550 at the pool.

The once-ambitious plan to build a linked system of hiking, biking and riding trails throughout town proved the major exception to the park department’s ability to stretch and keep all its programs running. Original plans called for 50 miles of trail by 2018, with an investment of about $100,000 annually. But the town has eliminated all funds for new trail construction in the past two years — leaving it to volunteers to maintain the existing, roughly 30-mile network.

The Friends will continue to cover the costs for the programs that don’t charge enough in fees to cover all the expenses. That includes the summer and spring recreation programs and concerts.

Hope to raise $16,000

Ensign hopes to raise about $16,000 through a series of fund-raisers this summer and fall.

The group will send out a fresh round of letters to previous donors and make new presentations before service clubs that have helped in the past, including Rotary and Kiwanis. The Central Arizona Board of Realtors and Realty Executives have also made contributions in the past, despite the dismal housing market.

Gerardo’s restaurant has promised to provide food for sale at a fund-raiser for the fall soccer leagues. The Friends group is also working on other fund-raisers, like a Frisbee Golf Tournament and a bigger push on the group’s normal, annual golf tournament, said Ensign.

McMullen said the efforts of Friends has bolstered a huge rush of support from volunteers, who have kept most recreation programs running in the past six months.

She estimated that the town gets thousands of hours of donated labor from about 300 active volunteers. For instance, many of the instructors for the outdoor recreation programs donate their time to teach classes like fishing for kids, mountain biking and more. When the event center faced the loss of many of its programs, volunteers pitched in and kept everything running, she noted.

Trying not to raise fees

“We really tried not to raise fees,” said McMullen, who added they were pleasantly surprised when a review showed that most of the town’s recreation programs already paid their own way.

Some fees for non-self-supporting programs went up — like a $5 increase in the $75 cost of the children’s summer recreation session — which provides programs for 12 hours a week for three weeks.

“We know these types of programs are very needed by the public, especially when the economy is in a downturn.”

She noted that the town now relies almost entirely on volunteers to keep its trails system maintained, although advocates say the trails could become one of the town’s major amenities for residents and draws for visitors.

The town’s original plan called for spending $100,000 to $150,000 per year to construct a network of trails designed like a giant wagon wheel, to allow people to hike or ride bikes and horses from anywhere in town to an outer ring of hiking trails in a Forest Service buffer zone of thinned timber and chaparral. Those trails would then connect to thousands of miles of major Forest Service trails throughout Rim Country.

However, the town has stopped building new trails and turned to a core of about 30 volunteers to maintain the existing trails.

Moreover, the town hopes to enlist people who can hike the trail network regularly and report on any maintenance problems, so the town can focus its limited resources.

A total of about 75 people have done volunteer work on the trails at some point and in the past year volunteers have put in more than 1,300 hours, said McMullen.

“We hear from the Forest Service that the trails are being used like never before, they’re being taken care of, the vandalism is down — so I think the volunteers and the increased focus is making them as good as they can be.”

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