Budgeting for Happiness

Parks and Rec Finds Its Bottom Line

by Andrea Barnett Every year, city processes align fortuitously with the rising temperature as the annual budget talks begin. Administrators are directed to make cuts, then propose to council how they plan to do more with less. Some officials talk of a tax increase, which prompts others to rule it out immediately. So at the end of June, when City Manager Jesus Garza released his draft budget proposal for the 1995-96 fiscal year, with recomendations and working budgets for all the city's 29 departments, the thermostat began its annual ascent.

Garza's letter to councilmem-bers sets "afford-ability" as the highest priority. "Affordability means providing the best possible service to our customers at a reasonable price," he writes, sounding more like a CEO than a public servant. But the details aren't so seamless: a property tax rate increase of one cent, no general wage increase for city employees, the elimination of 90 jobs, and $44.4 million in new debt.

Council is scheduled to vote on the budget September 13. In the coming weeks, the Chronicle will delve into the budget process. Behind the numbers, tables, and line items, are services that people count on, care about, or sometimes take for granted. It's perhaps appropriate, then, to start off the series with an agency whose mission is "making people happy."

Actually, the full slogan for the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) reads: "Making people happy through quality programs and beautiful parks." And under this year's proposed finances - $100,000 less than last year - people will have to be happier with less.

"Basically, the philosophy I took going into this is to get Parks back to parks - our staff, our programs," says PARD director Mike Heitz. Faced with an order from the city to trim 6% off the $19.3 million in general fund money the department received in 1994-95, Heitz came up with $1.3 million in cuts by shifting responsibility for maintenance of the Zachary Scott Theater ($60,000), the AISD Community Education Program ($302,000), and the AISD After-School Program ($505,000) over to other departments, closing the underused Palm Pool ($20,000) at Cesar Chavez and I-35, cutting off funds for the privately owned Pioneer Farm ($200,000), and a few other miscellaneous costs. Using this approach, Heitz's proposal cuts the requisite funds, but in cutting PARD's responsiblities leaves the department with only $100,000 less than this past year for the programs that remain.

Even then, the department's total budget of $32 million (which includes money from the city's capital improvements budget, cultural arts fund, solid waste services, and various recreational "enterprise funds" which come from fees PARD charges people to participate in things like softball or golf) falls short of financing basic infrastructure. At the same time, the agency has to pay for four new facilities that will be opening this year: Dove Springs Recreation Center, Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center, the Central City Entertainment Center (Eric Mitchell's pet project), and the South Austin Senior Activity Center.

Primary among the agency's unmet needs - or "unresolved issues" as Heitz calls them - are maintenance costs, a bus to transport people with disabilities to various PARD-sponsored programs at the recreation centers, and salary increases for temporary seasonal employees and park police. Heitz says he would like to see raises for police officers, bringing their salaries more in line with the Austin Police Department. And with 47 swimming pools needing more than 400 lifeguards, Heitz says the department has to increase wages to offer competitive salaries to its summer workers.

But maintenance is perhaps the department's biggest challenge. PARD manages 15,000 acres of urban park land, 12,000 acres of preserve land (including the Balcones Canyonland Conservation Plan endangered species preserves), and 18 recreational centers. They maintain all the city's cemeteries and right-of-ways - a task which consumes the forestry employees' time to the point where they have no resources to deal with the city's trees.

"Things have a lifespan," Heitz says, "Parking lots, for example. If you don't reseal an asphalt parking lot, before long it becomes a gravel parking lot and you have to redo the whole thing. Look at the parking lot in front of the Barton Springs bathhouse and you'll see what I mean."

So the agency manages to get along using what Heitz calls "crisis management." When there's an emergency - such as last year's discovery that leaking pipes at the Deep Eddy pool had washed away all the soil under the pool - the department has to come to city council for additional money. A pillar of PARD's maintenance program is hoping that nothing goes wrong.

"We've got filter systems operating way beyond their life expectency," Heitz says. "There's a general deterioration of systems a little each year, and we're not doing good preventative maintenance."

According to the agency's budget proposal, at least 75% of PARD's vehicles need to be replaced; parking lots, roads, pools, buildings, and playground equipment need "extensive renovation and/or replacement," including several buildings that ought to be demolished outright; and park police need "Mobile Data Terminals" which would enable them to communicate with the Austin Police Department on emergency frequencies.

"We're getting to the point where we can't cut any more, and it's up to council to decide what they're going to do," Heitz says, pointing out that PARD has cut 100 employees since the 1986-87 budget year, while adding on 3,000 acres in urban park land. At the same time, he says, he realizes that council is having to make difficult choices - that all the city's departments need more money for basic services. "I think the council is very responsive to the needs of the park department, but their resources are limited. If they give Parks more, they take that away from some other general fund department."

Council has scheduled a work session on PARD's budget for Wednesday, August 23, 9am-5pm, at the Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs Rd.

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