Hart questions fate of town parks, facilities

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

Come the end of the year, Pulaski’s Parks and Facilities Department will go away under Pulaski’s proposed 2018-19 Fiscal Year Budget.

Dave Hart, longtime director of the department, seems resigned to the idea his days with the town are almost over, but Tuesday night he questioned what’s going to happen to the town’s parks and playgrounds, and the employees he supervises.

“After 33 years working on this job, I’d like an explanation how we got to this point so quickly; especially since the last motion passed by council was to come back with 1.5 percent cuts,” Hart said during a budget work session.

At it’s June 4 meeting, council voted 4-3 to instruct town department heads to cut another 1.5 percent off their operational costs in the proposed budget, due for action by June 30.

Like other department heads, Hart pointed out he proposed additional 1.5 percent cuts on each budget he oversees, only to have his Parks and Facilities budget cut 61 percent.

“Somehow, in three weeks, we went from a balanced budget, with a fully funded Parks and Facilities program, to half a year for my position and a plan where we’re not sure of where anything else is going,” he said.

Hart said he appreciates the fact town staff is working on a retirement incentive plan.

“It’s evident my time is done here, probably. I hate to go out this way, but I probably will take you up on that deal if we can work it out,” he said.

“But I’m more concerned that we have a town I’ve been in since 1985 and raised my kids here … and I cannot see why in this day and age we would have an elimination of parks, playgrounds, open spaces and things people want and need,” he said. “Whatever your thinking is going forward, please address that and I will actually apologize for letting the program, I guess, sink to the level that it can just, with the turn of a page, be gone.”

Hart acknowledged a manager has been hired to operate Gatewood for the town and it appears the arrangement is going to work. “But this man is renting boats and selling things from the store. He’s not got eyeballs and department-head-level oversight of the entire 788 acres and your most precious commodity — a 162-acre lake.

“Now there’s talk of moving the museum, train station and special events to Community Development. That’s good, but there’s no Community Development. It’s on an organizational chart to be formulated, but please give it the attention and oversight it deserves,” he said.

He added that it is evident people are out enjoying town parks on any nice evening.

“These are probably not people who are going to call you guys up on the phone and tell you to spend more money on their playground. They’re probably kind of a silent majority; but they like and enjoy the parks. They may not even be people who show up to vote for you guys, but they enjoy them and need them,” Hart added.

With a new skateboard park and outdoor basketball court in the planning stages, Hart questioned why the town would want to cut back on parks at this point. The kids need even more to do. Council needs to be spending more on parks and things to do; not go the other way.”

He also urged council to continue providing monetary contributions to programs such as the Fine Arts Center and Pulaski Theatre. He called them “arms of service the town doesn’t have to fully fund, as some jurisdictions do.

Hart said he would just like an explanation for what has taken place over the past few weeks.

“We made it through multiple budget works sessions with a balanced budget and then suddenly, in the past three weeks, I’m having to scramble to figure out what my VRS (retirement) and Social Security benefits will be when I’m done here,” he said. He also wondered what will be left of the town’s parks program after the budget cuts are made.

Councilman Jamie Radcliffe said the problem is one of communications. For example, he questioned why Hart’s department has someone to mow the parks when public works can mow them.

“They could,” Hart responded. However, he explained, public works used to do all the mowing and got behind in their duties. He pointed out Radcliffe called such a situation duplication at a recent budget work session. Hart says he only sees that as duplication if all the properties are maintained and workers still have free time on their hands.

Radcliffe asked why all mowing isn’t consolidated then.

“Then let’s have a plan to do it,” Hart responded. He asked when Radcliffe came up with the idea.

Radcliffe said it’s been awhile.

“But we didn’t hear about it until it was almost time to send the budget to the newspaper to be advertised,” Hart added.

Radcliffe said he thought about consolidated mowing about it two years ago when council first started talking about hiring someone to manage Gatewood.

 

At that point, Hart ceased their discussion, saying he didn’t want it to develop into what it had. He thanked current and past town councils, mayors and town managers he has worked for over the years. “I’ve enjoyed it all,” he added.

Councilman Greg East said he is looking at the issue from a budgetary standpoint.

“It was nothing you did that caused Parks and Recreation to become Parks and Facilities. That was something that happened many years ago. The county took responsibility for recreation,” East told Hart. Since then, he said, David Hagan bought Calfee Park and Gatewood “was a $170,000 hole in the budget — through no fault of yours.”

“Some parks just don’t make money,” Hart said.

“That’s right, they don’t. But when you’re dealing with shrinking revenue and increasing expenditures, that becomes a concern not just for parks and facilities but for the town as a whole,” said East. “That’s where I’m coming from. It’s by no means a personal decision.”

“The easier decision in my mind would be to do nothing. But we’re elected to sit up here and represent 9,000 citizens. We have to do what we feel is right for them,” he said.

Hart said he understands that, but his budget has been reduced by $120,000 since 2016.

“You’re taking drastic action that is unnecessary, I believe. If we were sitting here next year and (Town Manager) Shawn (Utt) submitted a budget $200,000 in the hole, I’d totally understand this,” Hart added.

“I would rather make a mild correction now than a drastic correction later,” East responded. “I don’t want the town to have to address a $200,000 or $300,000 shortfall and we’re having to pull our hair out” to find a solution.

“You should be able to see that coming,” Hart responded. “So, are you going to take all aspects of the (parks) program and have them be continued?”

Having just received the 1.5 percent proposed cuts Friday, Councilman Joseph Goodman said he wasn’t prepared to discuss them Monday night.

“If the plan includes closing our parks, not caring for our parks, not making sure that the quality of life our citizens enjoy are the things we do in this community … I won’t support it,” he said of the proposed budget cuts.

“What we’re doing with this proposal, I’m not happy about. I can’t support it, but I’m one of six,” Goodman told Hart and council members. “If we’re going to make any impacts to our parks, it’s got to be for the better, not the worse.

“What attracts people to a community is the quality of life. It’s the parks that lose money. If parks made money every business would be doing it. There’s a reason it costs so much to go to Disney World. Parks are expensive and the role of government is to take on those responsibilities businesses won’t for the citizens,” he said.

Goodman told Utt he wants to have a good talk about how the proposed changes are going to work, so that when the department closes in December there will be a plan.

Utt said staff will try to have a transition plan put together by Tuesday’s monthly work session so the changes won’t negatively impact the playgrounds.

He told council Hart has come up with some “very reasonable plans we can take advantage of and improve rather than take a step back. I never want to propose a budget that takes a step back on services.”

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