Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bill Morem: Let parks be its own department

Who knew the condition of our county parks had been languishing? That the major water line at the Morro Bay golf course was leaking enough each year to quench the thirst of a small suburb?

Who knew county park trees are going dangerously unpruned, asphalt pathways are eroding, or that Chalk Mountain golf course’s fairways had turned to mush from a lack of drainage improvements?

Besides those on the Parks Commission, or those who work in the parks daily, or the good folks in the Parks Division of General Services, not very many, it turns out.

It seems that those who did know about the deterioration have been trying to get the attention of the Board of Supervisors, but either the urgency wasn’t conveyed or the message wasn’t delivered. It took a civil grand jury report called “Out on a Limb” to catch the eyes and ears of supervisors about the situation.

In response, a blue-ribbon panel of community leaders was assembled to take a good look at the situation; it reported that one way to see improvement is to break the Parks Division out of General Services—a structure that most counties of our size use.

It’s understandable that General Services may be a little distracted from park problems; it not only oversees every community park in the unincorporated areas from Shandon to Nipomo, but it’s also responsible for architectural services, the regional airport, facilities upkeep, mail and purchasing.

It’s fair to say General Services has a lot on its plate.

That’s why our supervisors, when they decide whether to break parks out of General Services this summer, should do just that: Make parks a stand-alone department.

County Administrator David Edge hasn’t necessarily been overly hostile to the idea; let’s just say there’s a lack of enthusiasm in his camp. He believes a standalone department will cost more money than the current arrangement. It may, and those numbers are being crunched now. But the status quo clearly isn’t acceptable.

Golf courses, parks and open spaces are major taxpayer investments that return numerous dividends. In a nutshell, they reduce crime, draw tourist dollars, increase property values and reduce development pressure on farmlands.

The list goes on: wildlife benefits, clean air, stress reduction— which leads to more workplace production and less absenteeism — increased family time and on and on. They can probably make your teeth whiter and your hair curlier, but those may be urban myths.

The bottom line is that since 1970, the county’s population has grown to about 260,000 from 105,000—a jump of almost 150 percent. Yet county parkland and accessible open space has grown only 12 percent during that time.

That isn’t an indictment of the current Board of Supervisors or administration—although they could go a long way in injecting some financial life into a parks program that’s been allowed to atrophy over the years.

It simply makes sense that a stand-alone parks department would more sharply focus on achieving, and adequately maintaining, taxpayer investments that provide physical, mental and economic benefits. Who knew?

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