Financial troubles deepen for parks department

Program cuts, layoffs likely as rec centers see lower revenue

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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The already beleaguered Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation Department is facing its biggest budget shortfall since the recession began, with a 10 percent budget cut, program reductions and layoffs on the horizon.

A 20 percent drop in recreation center revenue, combined with a repurposing of Clark County funds away from the parks department, have combined to create a $1 million to $1.3 million shortfall in the department’s $10.5 million budget, city officials said Friday.

All city employees were notified by email, and all of the department’s 65 employees (a number that goes up to more than 300 seasonal workers in the summer) have been warned of impending job losses. Just who and how many people will be lost isn’t yet clear, but will be in the next one to three months, Parks Director Pete Mayer said.

“In terms of what we’ve experienced ... this is more significant than other (budget shortfalls),” he said.

Vancouver isn’t making the money it was from its recreation centers, Mayer said. The city has already instituted a 5 to 6 percent increase in monthly recreation center prices this year (it costs about $40 a month for a rec center pass), closed the Firstenburg Community Center an hour earlier, and also closed the Marshall Community Center on Sundays.

Officials thought that losses may be due to typical ebbs and flows of revenue, but as the peak time of summer wound down, City Manager Eric Holmes said it became clear that the losses were ongoing. Cost recovery at the city’s recreation centers was above 80 percent in 2010; now it's below 70 percent.

“We had to ferret out whether it was a seasonal issue or rooted in bigger economic issues,” Holmes said. “It turns out it was the economy.”

That, along with the simultaneous loss of about $400,000 from the county, made for a “negative aligning of the stars,” he said.

In the county’s 2012 budget, revenues from real estate excise taxes, which are charged on property sales, will be used to pay off debt on county buildings instead of going to new capital investments such as roads and parks. The revenue stream from real estate excise taxes, which are calculated as a percentage of the sale, has steadily dropped along with property values and sales.

What it means, the parks director said, is that the department must completely reconfigure its business model. Mayer said he hopes to implement initial changes by spring of 2012.

“This is not a nip or a tuck; this is significant,” he said.

Just what that restructuring will entail isn’t fully worked out yet, but Mayer said he hopes to have plans within the next one to three months.

Already, the department is trying to bring in more revenue in the short run by offering discounts. In an email sent Thursday, the department hypes a bargain for new rentals: “Here’s a deal you won’t want to miss — book an event that takes place before April 30, 2012 at Firstenburg Community Center or Marshall/Luepke Centers and you’ll get 30% off any new booking!”

No stranger to cuts

Parks and recreation has long been aware of its woes and making changes to cut costs — its budget has been slashed every year since 2003. Along with rec center price increases, the department reduced teen center hours; spent less to hire help at customer service desks; cut the number of special events offered at both centers; began a surcharge on activities for the disabled and reduced maintenance.

And there have been layoffs: A $700,000 shortfall in July 2010 led to the loss of 20 people, who equaled 10.5 full time positions. Mayer said on his fourth day after he started in early 2009, there was a $200,000 gap that led to layoffs. Nine months later, a reduction of $300,000 caused five or six jobs to be lost.

“In my relatively short tenure, it’s been a consistent experience,” Mayer said.

Revenue to run parks includes parking fees, rentals and recreation fees. The elimination of the county’s contribution of real estate excise tax money will directly affect parks planning positions.

A parks blue ribbon commission has put out recommendations that include working with nonprofits to deliver some services and also finding a way to take parks out of the general fund, where it loses in competition with public safety and other city services.

It’s a difficult balance, as things that make money, such as fitness passes or classes, are in competition with the private sector, Mayer said. And those money-making activities have to go toward losing programs that contribute to the public good, such as programs for the disabled, elderly and at-risk teens.

“We’re a social service provider, which by its nature doesn’t make money, that’s what the private sector isn’t out doing those things,” he said. “It’s a question of what gives: Things we have been subsidizing that are of community value, or offsetting that with revenue that doesn’t seem to be there.”

Reporter Stephanie Rice contributed to this story.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall