Parks director makes pitch for utility fee to raise funds

The option to sell underused parks would still be on the table.

The city of Astoria may impose a utility fee on Pacific Power customers to boost the Parks and Recreation budget and help stabilize the department’s operations.

At a City Council work session Thursday, Angela Cosby, the parks and recreation director, proposed the fee during a presentation that told the story of the parks budget — a story of department obligations gradually overwhelming its personnel and finances.

Cosby and several park staff members showed up with four small seesaws — representing aquatics, recreation, maintenance and administration — depicting how requirements came to outweigh resources as the department added services and programs, created and eliminated staff positions, while general fund transfers have stagnated or declined.

Under Cosby’s proposal, nearly 5,000 utility customers would pay a fee of $5.92 a month, plus a monthly 51 cents for residential customers or 55 cents for commercial customers to their Recology bill for garbage services. The department expects to bring in slightly more than $350,000.

Parks and Rec has seven full-time employees that manage about 300 acres of parkland, nine miles of trails, 12 indoor facilities, and the department’s recreation, aquatics and child care programs, according to the parks master plan.

The money would add to the department’s existing revenue streams, which include general fund transfers and user fees. It would pay for — among other assets — an additional three full-time employees; increase wages for cashiers, child care providers and parks maintenance workers; and update the franchise agreement with Recology to include garbage, and possibly recycling services, within parks.

‘Some urgency’

In recent years, “the number of facilities managed, our requirements, continued to go up, and resources continued to go down. The percent transfer from the general fund continued to decrease,” Cosby said.

The overstretched funding and staffing levels have led to a high turnover rate in part-time employees and a few poorly maintained parks. The department may have to close down some sites “due to hazards,” Cosby said.

“We have a responsibility to keep playgrounds and swingsets up to a certain par. Same with trails and our recreational space,” Cosby said.

City Manager Brett Estes said, “There is some urgency, from the staff’s perspective, to move forward on this.”

He, Cosby and Finance Director Susan Brooks are building next fiscal year’s budget. Details of the fee may not be decided on by then.

However, “the longer we prolong this, the more of an impact we could be having to our general fund,” Estes said.

He and Cosby may bring the proposal before the council again at a work session within a month.

Councilors Cindy Price and Bruce Jones said they would favor a higher rate than the figure Cosby proposed — perhaps closer to $7 or $8 so that the city has money for more than just the basics, Price said.

Councilor Zetty Nemlowill suggested that perhaps the fee should be based on a percentage of ratepayers’ power bills rather than levied as a flat rate.

Selling parks

The City Councilors agreed that a utility fee is a promising idea.

A utility fee, however, would not extinguish the question of whether the city should sell off the least-utilized parks, an idea unpopular among people surveyed during the master-planning process.

“I do think that the master plan strongly suggests something should be eliminated in order to continue to decrease the requirements on your resources,” Price said.

Jones, mindful that future cost-cutting measures might be necessary, said he had trouble thinking of a service in the parks purview that he would want to remove.

“I’d rather get rid of a few properties, frankly,” he said. “That, I know, would be very controversial, to sell a few parks that are the least utilized. We’ve seen how controversial it is. But I’d rather face that heat than cut out youth sports, for example.”

The income generated from selling properties traditionally goes into the capital improvement fund, and can be spent on other departments. However, the council can decide — as Nemlowill said she would prefer — to designate the money for parks department use only.

Although Price said she could support the sale of underused parks, she would not want to lose a park from an area with relatively few parks, even if that park is not frequently used. Alderbrook Park at Lief Erikson Drive and 45th Street, is not heavily used, but it’s the closest park to an area underserved by parks, Cosby said.

Burdens and responsibilities

Nemlowill, who sat on the citizens advisory committee that guided the master plan last year, championed a quality-over-quantity view.

“Parks and Rec is extremely important to the quality of life in Astoria,” she said, “but we know that we can’t do everything well.”

Nemlowill said she supported easing the park staff’s burden by transferring underused properties.

Tidal Rock Park at Commercial and 15th streets, for example, is “really a blight on downtown Astoria,” she said.

“It’s in an urban renewal district — and an urban renewal district’s aim is to cure urban blight,” she said. “And here we have a city-owned property, which is the dumpiest property on the block. It’s unacceptable.”

The problem is not that the parks staff isn’t doing a good job, she said. “It’s that they simply can’t keep up and maintain that site. And it’s a low-priority site, and so they spend more time at sites that get more used. So it doesn’t make any sense to me that we have that in our parks system.”

Nemlowill acknowledged that, since the property comes with deed restrictions, the city can’t simply sell it.

She added that the city should find partners in the community that could take over some of the services the Parks and Recreation Department provides.

“If we’re going to ask citizens to pay more money for parks, we need to show that we’re being really responsible and also offloading some of our burdens and responsibilities at the same time,” Nemlowill said.

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