Beleaguered PARD Considers Dousing Trail of Lights

What are the holidays without that special twinkle at Zilker?

"We can't look like the Grinch!"

"But if we don't have the money, we don't have the money."

"We're going to have to cancel this event if we don't have someone step up to pay for it."

That was the conversation at the Parks and Recreation Board meeting May 20, as board members made a drastic and attention-getting recommendation: Consider canceling the Zilker Park holiday Trail of Lights. The Parks & Recreation Department loses about $800,000 a year on the popular event, despite revenues generated by sponsorships, parking, and concessions. With the department now being asked to cut another $1.4 million (4%) from its 2009-2010 budget – after two previous rounds of to-the-bone cuts in 2008-2009 – PARD faces some very tough decisions.

An alternative to canceling the Trail of Lights would be to find another entity to host it or to charge admission; PARD Director Sara Hensley said both approaches are common in other cities. "We love this event, and we know the public loves it," said Hens­ley. "We know there's a way to save this event, but it's one that needs to be funded through other mechanisms."

The board's review of the proposed departmental budget is something new, part of an outreach effort by City Manager Marc Ott to create more public transparency for the city budget process. (Less than 10 Austinites showed up for the budget meeting at the Mexican American Cultural Center, however.) Like other city departments, PARD is being asked to cut deeper as the city faces an anticipated $43 million deficit next year. But because PARD has been historically underfunded and has already cut $1.6 million permanently and frozen 24 staff positions earlier this year, its situation is particularly grim. Slashing another $1.4 million next fiscal year translates to a total reduction of more than 8% of PARD's $36.9 million General Fund allowance.

"Can we make more money, or does it all have to be savings?" asked board member Danette Chimenti, echoed by others. Hens­ley said that she'd love to earn more revenue to self-finance departmental needs – rather than just slash programs and staff – but her direction had been to find the cuts. Nearly all income generated by PARD goes back to the General Fund, not to the department itself, creating a disincentive to get creative and earn additional revenues – by proactively increasing facility rentals, for example.

"How much do we annually lose through fee waivers in Parks?" asked board Chair Linda Guerrero. The answer from budget staffer Angela Means: About $1 million. "It is killing us," said Hensley. The waivers of fees for use of PARD facilities – for example, holding a festival or nonprofit fundraiser in a park – are made at the discretion of City Council. Based on the discussion among board members at the meeting, it appeared that council was not adhering to its budget limits for fee waivers, thus costing PARD a huge loss in income. Were council to stop waiving even 50% of those fees, noted Guerrero (assuming PARD then got the monies back from the General Fund), that would go a long way toward making up the $1.4 million now needed.

The Parks Board met again May 26; members learned from staff that Austin's Trail of Lights entailed a total cost to the city of $1,037,644 last year – putting it among the nation's most expensive similar events to produce. Staff presented specific budget-cut options: cancellation for 2009, reducing the scale, and outsourcing. Board members asked PARD to also explore charging a small admission fee to the 300,000 visitors (other cities charge between $4 and $5 per person and $20 per car).

For more on the proposed budget cuts at the Parks & Recreation Department, download the brief PARD presentation as a PDF.

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Parks and Recreation Department, Sara Hensley, Trail of Lights, Danette Chimenti, Linda Guerrero

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