Parks staff, programs will be cut

Intention is to preserve services to the most vulnerable and profitable activities to support them

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Faced with an ongoing budget crisis, Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation will lay off 17 employees in the next two months, or about 30 percent of its remaining staff, officials announced Monday.

This will bring the staff to about 43 people, Director Pete Mayer said. Once these cuts take effect, one-half of parks and recreation employees will have lost their jobs since 2003.

Affected employees will be informed within the next two weeks, Mayer said. The cuts will come in planning, where Clark County commissioners cut $400,000 in late 2011, and also in recreation, where there was an $800,000 shortfall in revenue last year.

While the layoffs and service reductions balance the budget through 2012, it’s not clear there won’t be more in 2013.

“It takes a toll on folks and creates great amounts of anxiety when we don’t know where we are, or where we’re going to land,” Mayer said.

Recreation centers will remain open in their current hours, but about 20 percent of recreation programming will be canceled. Most of those programs — about 500 of them — are ones that don’t make money, or are underperforming, Mayer said.

The Kids First After School program, all late-night teen activities and all special events — such as Earth Day, health and hobby expos and fitness demonstrations — will be canceled. Other unprofitable programs, such as the Summer Playground program and the Access to Recreation program for the disabled, will continue, but may be altered or reduced, Mayer said.

Parks maintenance staff, which was cut by about half at the start of 2011, will remain at current levels, he said.

‘Really anxious’

Monday afternoon, recreation staff members and parks supporters filled the council chambers at City Hall to hear the news. Among them was Teresa Williamson, a recreation coordinator in charge of programs for the disabled and seniors.

“We’re all anxious, because we don’t know who is being laid off or what programs are being cut,” said Williamson, who has worked for the city for 23 years. “We’re a big family; we care for one another. We’re really anxious.”

Several audience members grumbled during Mayer’s presentation about a lack of public or employee input about which programs would be cut. But Mayer said that the decisions were made based on the intention of rebuilding the recreation department from the ground up with the city’s finance department. The team made data-based choices, keeping the most profitable classes and also those that serve the most vulnerable populations.

Things that make money, such as fitness passes or classes, compete with the private sector, Mayer said. And the proceeds from money-making activities support money-losing programs that contribute to the public

good, such as programs for the disabled, elderly and at-risk teens. With a 20 percent drop in recreation center revenue, that means some subsidized programs have to go.

“We must find a more sustainable funding mechanism for parks and rec,” Mayer told the city council.

Councilor Larry Smith, who worked in the city’s parks department for 12 years before retiring as its director in 2003, said he understands Mayer’s and his employees’ pain.

“The ones that get hurt are the ones who can’t afford programs,” Smith said, adding that when cuts happen, children, seniors and the disabled “take it in the shorts, to be blunt.”

The city’s $2.5 million annual general fund support for the department (about one-third of the total parks budget) is currently stable.

Members of the city council said they would work on finding solutions to the ongoing problem soon, particularly by looking into recommendations made last year by a countywide Parks Blue Ribbon Commission. The commission recommended a separate taxing district, increased volunteerism and coordination with nonprofit groups among their potential fixes.

Councilor Jeanne Harris said she thinks nonprofit groups could use the city’s facilities to provide what government no longer can, and that she disagrees with local government’s being in competition with local fitness businesses.

“We’re not supposed to be a business. We’re government,” Harris said. “We’re supposed to provide for those who cannot.”

The discussion of finding alternative money for the department could begin as soon as Friday, when the council is set for an all-day meeting to start planning for the 2013-2014 budget.