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Parks and rec funding: Who pays the price?

Wrangling over parks and recreation funding for 2010, Pagosa Springs Town Council members and the Board of County Commissioners engaged in a mostly fruitless and often contentious discussion during a joint town/county work session last Thursday at Town Hall.

However, a move by the BoCC on Monday afternoon to provide additional funding for parks and recreation may have eased the town’s concerns — momentarily.

The funding has been the subject of an ongoing debate for the past several months at joint town/county meetings, and council has continued to claim that, while the town shoulders the lion’s share of parks and recreation expenses, its programs and facilities are used primarily by county residents.

In previous joint meetings, council said it would settle for a 50/50 split of parks and recreation funding, despite its assertion that, while the town foots 80 percent of the bill, 80 percent of program and facility usage is by county residents.

In a letter dated Sept. 17 from Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem, addressed to council and the BoCC, Mitchem proposed not only a 50/50 split in parks and recreation funding, but equal representation on the town’s Parks and Recreation Commission as well. However, the letter does not mention joint administration and, under Mitchem’s proposal, it is assumed that administrative control of the town Parks and Recreation Department would remain with the town.

The letter goes on to say, “Merger of Archuleta County’s Parks, Recreation, Open Space and Trails Taskforce and the Town Park and Recreation Commission is in the best interest of the community.”

Considering recent history with proposed mergers, the BoCC would have some reason for pause. Furthermore, while the BoCC has never disputed that the majority of participants in parks and recreation programs are county residents, it has maintained that the town has overstated the funding discrepancy.

“I would disagree with these numbers,” County Administrator Greg Schulte said at the meeting. “I believe there is a fundamental, philosophical difference in what you’re asking. Based upon our budget for 2010, we don’t have money in the general fund (to contribute for town parks and recreation programs).

Schulte went on to suggest that, should the town free up parks and recreation capital improvement money in its general fund and allocate those monies for operations and maintenance, allocations for parks and recreation from the county’s Conservation Trust Fund (CTF) and 1A monies could replace town capital improvement dollars.

At the meeting, Schulte said he was under the impression that money from the county’s CTF was, by statute, restricted to capital improvements. However, in later conversations with SUN staff, Schulte stated that clarification from the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) indicated that CTF money could be used for operations and maintenance.

In a further attempt to address the funding disagreement, County Special Projects Manager Karin Kohake presented findings from a joint town/county committee that recommended four options in the future administration of area parks and recreation.

Of the four options, pursuing the establishment of a special district for Parks and Recreation appeared to capture the most interest.

While requiring voter approval, a special district would be self-sustaining, funded through tax increases (either by raising mill levies or, as proposed at Thursday’s meeting, through raising sales tax by a half cent). The advantages of the special district would be (according to Kohake’s report) increased parks and recreation funding, more grant funding opportunities, additional public oversight, independent administrative control and equitable funding across town and county residents.

Unfortunately, for the purposes of the meeting, all recommendations by the committee looked to long term solutions and council was calling on the county for immediate remediation.

“We’re chomping at the bit to get to 2010 funding,” said council member Stan Holt, “and we’re looking for a county commitment for money.”

Council member Mark Weiler pointed out to the BoCC that council was in the midst of budget decisions and, according to Weiler, “making hard decisions where the return on investment isn’t there.”

“You have the money,” Weiler said. “The question is, do you have the courage to make the hard decisions?”

Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon appeared even more frustrated with the county’s response. “If you said, let’s figure out a solution, let’s figure out how we can get this done, that would please me more than your weasel words,” Aragon said, referring to the county’s suggestion that the town shuffle funds to accommodate county CTF contributions.

“We’re offering public relations, goodwill, cooperation,” Aragon continued. “This ‘we can’t do it, the money’s not there’ doesn’t work for me.”

Although the meeting ended with both sides entrenched, council and the BoCC agreed to meet again to further discuss the issue of parks and recreation funding.

However, on Monday, the BoCC decided (after meeting behind closed doors in executive session) to provide the town with an additional $50,000 in CTF money over and above the initial $30,000 pledged to the town for parks and recreation funding. According to Schulte, the county made the CTF dollars available after DOLA clarified that CTF money could be used for maintenance and operations.

While not the 50/50 split the town had previously asked for (which would amount to just over $265,000), Mitchem was pleased that the county dug a little deeper to fund local parks and recreation — so pleased that Mitchem cancelled the aforementioned follow-up meeting with the county .

“Based on the results, we felt the meeting was not necessary.”

Mitchem went on to say, “It’s truly a blessing for the town and we appreciate the gesture on the part of the county.”

The county’s largesse was not without strings, however. In the letter announcing the additional funding, the county stated that the town needs to reconsider fees (for programs and facilities), most likely to increase those fees — a proposal the town appears ready to entertain. Furthermore, the letter stated that further discussion was warranted regarding a long-term solution for the future of area Parks and Recreation, as the county made it clear that the release of CTF money to the town was a onetime deal.

The town has yet to respond as to its intent to entertain further discussions regarding the future of Parks and Recreation.

With both the town and the county honing budget knives, parks and recreation funding faces deep cuts as both boards race to submit their completed 2010 budgets. While the BoCC and town council both recognize the importance of parks and recreation funding in providing for a high quality of life for town and county residents, neither board seems willing to maintain the status quo of parks and recreation funding, operation, maintenance, capital improvements or administration.

Should the town and county pursue the formation of a special district for parks and recreation (a matter that would ultimately go to the voters) or some other option, one thing is clear: Unless something changes soon in how parks and recreation are funded, area residents will most likely see diminishing service, fewer programs and no added amenities in the near future.

jim@pagosasun.com