Services at county parks will continue at their current level through the rest of this fiscal year, which ends June 30, thanks to a decision Tuesday by a reluctant Board of Supervisors to siphon $125,000 from the county Parks Department’s rainy day fund.
But the board also gave the Parks Department a warning: Dipping into emergency funds is not going to be a regular thing — the department needs to do a better job of budgeting and should be more aggressive about getting volunteers to help with the county’s parks.
“So long as we understand that this isn’t going to be a free ride,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said as he voted for the transfer of funds.
Parks Director Curtis Black and his boss, General Services Director Janette Pell, outlined a grim history that showed the department falling short of its projections this year by $688,000.
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By cutting services, not filling vacant jobs and other stratagems, the department came up with $563,000 in savings. But it still needed to find $125,000.
One way to do that, Black said, would be to hire fewer seasonal workers, which in turn would leave restrooms in some parks unclean, graffiti on the walls, and picnic tables and barbecues in poor shape.
Alternatively, the board had the option to move money from the department’s contingency fund, which would leave it at $196,550.
Black said the county should give priority to parks that generate money, in order to keep that revenue flowing. He listed them as the Avila Plaza, Lopez Lake, Santa Margarita Lake, the Oceano Dunes RV Park, and El Chorro Park.
The parks targeted for neglect would be those that do not bring in money, Black said.
But those parks are usually small “pocket parks” at or near the center of communities, and the suggestion did not sit well with the Board of Supervisors, or with two members of the county Parks Commission who spoke, Rick Mathews and Pandora Nash-Karner.
Closing those parks would hurt “some of the most disenfranchised” the most, Supervisor Frank Mecham said.
In some communities, Supervisor Jim Patterson added, “it’s all the kids have in the summer.”
Mike Winn of the Nipomo Community Services District called closing pocket parks “a thinly veiled form of child abuse.”
Mecham added that allowing pocket parks to deteriorate will keep people from going there, and several speakers, including Gibson, said it could increase vandalism and graffiti and create a public safety problem.
All of these scenarios would steer the county away from its stated reason for having parks, which is, as Mathews put it, “to provide service to the people.” The Parks Department has taken steps to boost park attendance, including taking out advertisements in the Central Valley and Los Angeles. Those have borne fruit, Black said.
Those present Tuesday had additional ideas. Winn, for example, suggested that the Parks Department follow the lead of the county library system, which draws on volunteers in each community to create groups like Friends of the Nipomo Library.
Most, if not all the suggestions, rely heavily on the use of volunteers.
“We need to look at the long term,” Gibson said. The county budget is going to be “bare bones for a long time,” he said.
Mecham said he wants to see better revenue projections. “If we don’t have good numbers, we’re shooting in the dark,” he said.