One of the Opinion page’s best friends — Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation — is taking some more haymakers to the chin, and our first inclination is to rush to the rescue. As described in a Tuesday Columbian story, the local parks department will lay off 17 employees (about 30 percent of its remaining staff) in the next two months. That means the parks and recreation workforce will be brought to about half what it was in 2003.Painful as that is to one of our best friends, we must acknowledge that the cuts cannot be avoided. In the overall scheme of local governments, parks and recreation opportunities — as valuable as they are in the lifestyle of this community — are outranked by public safety and a few other components of local government. This continued erosion of the parks budget is deeply disappointing. But as we observed in an editorial six weeks ago when the Greater Clark Parks District announced that construction of several new parks had been postponed, the cuts are necessary. Of course, that observation is no consolation to those who will lose their jobs, but it reflects reality.
Several factors lead us to believe Parks Director Pete Mayer and his staff are doing their best to lessen the pain. For example, no recreation centers will be closed, and the current hours those centers are open will not be reduced. Nevertheless, about one-fifth of the recreation programming will be canceled.
Mayer is caught in the same budget dilemma that a college athletic director might face: What is the role of the revenue producers? The athletic director could achieve a lot of savings by cutting the biggest budget category, but football is a financial fountain that supports many of the spring sports that yield no profit. Likewise in parks management. If the moneymakers such as fitness classes are cut too much, revenue is reduced that can support money-losing programs. Many of those smaller programs are necessary because they serve patrons who have nowhere else to go for such programs.
Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation is one of our best friends for several reasons, but especially these two: For several years, the department has shown how successful city-county mergers can be. We’d like to see more consolidations like that. Second, parks and recreation help sustain the high quality of life that makes our community so appealing.
Although the reduction in the parks and recreation budget is distressing, there’s hope in the distant future. Part of that hope is placed in an expected but unseen economic recovery. Another part rests with the ability to find other funding sources. The countywide Parks Blue Ribbon Commission recommends considering several revenue sources, perhaps a separate taxing district, plus increased volunteerism and coordinating nonprofit groups.
Ultimately, for local parks and recreation offerings to return to their peak, a total restructuring of funding sources will be necessary. For now, the public must recognize the value of establishing and adhering to spending priorities. When governments — and businesses and families, for that matter — must battle lingering economic challenges, there’s really no other choice than to focus on priorities.