Live chat transcript: Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation director Pete Mayer

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Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation director Pete Mayer joined Columbian.com users for a live web chat on May 11, 2012. Here's the transcript. It's been edited for clarity.

Get some background on the issues facing the department in our story that previewed the chat.

Matt Wastradowski: Welcome, everyone, to today's live web chat with Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation director Pete Mayer. If you have questions, get them in now! Mayer will join us shortly. In the mean time, here is some background on what's been up with the department in recent months: http://www.columbian.com/news/2012/may/08/live-chat-vancouver-clark-parks-and-recreation-set/

Matt Wastradowski: Pete, when you're here, please say hi so that I know you're good to go! And if our readers want to submit questions, feel free to submit them!

John Hill: Good morning. Web editor John Hill here. More background: http://www.columbian.com/news/2012/mar/27/vancouver-agrees-to-ask-voters-for-parks-funding/

Matt Wastradowski: We'll get started here in a second. Pete is trying to log in.

Pete Mayer: I'm on-line and ready for the hard-hitting questions...

Matt Wastradowski: Welcome, Pete! Thanks for joining us today. Let's start by you telling the readers a bit about yourself and the department.

John Hill: Welcome, Pete!

Pete Mayer: I joined VCPRD approximately 3 years ago having previously served as the Assistant City Manager and Parks and Recreation Director for the City of Mercer Island. I have a B.A. and M.S. from Washington State University- Pullman in parks and recreation. VCPRD, a unique joint City-County agency, has been through some tough fiscal times, but our dedicated staff continue to manage, operate and maintain 3 beloved community centers, hundreds of parks and thousands of acres of parks, trails, greenways and sportsfields. We have fabulous treasures here in the greater Vancouver area.

Matt Wastradowski: Great, thanks, Pete! What would you say are the most important issues facing the department right now?

Pete Mayer: Fiscal stability and sustainability. Economic challenges facing both the City and County, as well as recent declines in recreation user activity has fragmented our parks and recreation system and impacted our citizens and park patrons.

Matt Wastradowski: On a similar note, we have this user comment ...

Comment From Kevin McCann: Pete, parks are a need and, as I see it, recreation funded by the city is partially a need- for those who truly can't afford it-and a want for the rest of us, me included. Keep increasing the cost of recreation for many of us; when it gets too expensive you will know.

Pete Mayer: Interesting point- we are subject to market conditions, community needs/desires and willingness to pay. Our dedicated staff are extremely enterprising and we cover 2/3 of the costs to keep our community centers open and providing program opportunities. This is extremely high cost recovery compared to other agencies and we're quite proud of the long track record of innovative programs and services that meet community needs. We are also commited to meeting the needs of underserved populations (teens, citizens with disabilities, low-income families, seniors)- most impacted by higher prices and economic downturns. We've done our best to insulate them from recent budget cuts but there have been impacts in these areas. We continue to search for options with our partners and donors.

Matt Wastradowski: Pete, you'd mentioned the decline in recreation user activity. Which activities have been the hardest hit? And with summer on the way, which activities will be offered over the next few months?

Matt Wastradowski: (Also, to our readers, if you have any questions, feel free to submit them!)

Pete Mayer: Great question, Matt.... the hardest hit is likely adult enrichment activities (dance, art, education, urban gardening, personal financial planning). In addition there have been impacts to teen services, after school programs, playground programs, etc. As you may be aware the Sensory Camp serving younger children with sensory disorders was a victim of the budget cuts, however the community is mobilizing to try and raise needed funds to restore the program. Despite the challenges, we're ready for a warm, fun and healthy summer offering our most popular programs including summer day camps for youth and teens, swim lessons for all abilities and a variety of youth sports. In addition, visit one of our local parks for great picnic opportunities and playgrounds for the kid in all of us!

John Hill: How many staff are left now? Just curious. Will the levy allow you to hire some of them back and if so, how many?

Pete Mayer: Since 2008, the Department has seen a decrease of half its staff- we have less than 60 staff maintaining and operating our parks, operating our community centers, delivering programs/services and administering the City-County parks system. A Metropolitan Parks District (MPD) is currently being considered by the City Council along with a operations/maintenance levy that would restore and preserve some critical services eliminated in past budget cuts. It's unclear as to the staffing implications of any potential measure, should the City Council decide to move forward with the MPD and levy.

Comment From Guest: If the parks and recreation dept. becomes separate from the general funds area of the budget, who will provide the oversight to insure it stays within budget?

Pete Mayer: The proposed MPD, as currently discussed by the City Council, would be governed in "ex-officio" capacity by the City Council. In other words, the elected City Council members would also serve as the future park board (a separate legal entity from the City of Vancouver). Thus, the 7-member City Council acting in a separate capacity as the park board would ultimately govern the operations of the district and set its budget.

Comment From Andrea Damewood: Pete, City Hall reporter here. There's a delightful five hour budget meeting on Monday. What can you say now about possible cuts in this next biennium, particularly if the levy does not pass?

Pete Mayer: Andrea- I look forward to spending 5 quality hours with you on Monday. Together, we learn more about what's instore for the next biennium.

Comment From Marissa Harshman: What prompted VCPRD to advocate for tobacco-free parks in the city and county?

Pete Mayer: Marissa- The Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission recognized the health impacts associated with second hand smoke and smokeless tobacco and recommended to both the County Commissioners and City Council that the 2005 voluntary ban around certain park areas (playgrounds, ballfields, beaches, etc.) become a mandatory ban throughout the entire park system. Clark County Public Health and VCPRD also recognize our collective mission to provide safe and healthy places for our community to play and recreate and extensive data identifies the dangers associated with second hand smoke. Clark County Health public survey data supports greater controls on smoking in parks, particularly where children are present.

Comment From Stephanie Rice: Do you watch "Parks and Rec," and, if so, are you more Leslie Knope or Ron Swanson?

Pete Mayer: I used to watch Parks and Rec, however it became abundantly clear that what actually goes on in "real life" as a public servant in the parks and recreation field is far richer in humorous content than whatever NBC was producing! In other words, the show could be immensly improved by obtaining content and stories from the trenches! Every day is an adventure!

Comment From kevin mccann: What % of the departments budget is covered by employee related expenses (including fully loaded retirement benefits, health care, etc.). I think for the city overall its 71% but just curious how parks and rec. compares to that?

Pete Mayer: Insightful question, Kevin... thanks for posing it. Regular benefited employee costs represent approximately 50% of our the parks and recreation department's budget. Approximately another 20% of the budget supports temporary/seasonal employees who deliver the vast majority of the programs and services to the community.

Comment From guest: Why have you let so many good employees go? Some that know this area maybe better than you?

Pete Mayer: Most of the difficult and painstaking personnel decisions we had to make were largely dicated by seniority-driven criteria that we are contractually bound by in the various labor contracts. Overall, the City has reduced its workforce by over 20% in the past 3 years- an enormous impact to our services, the community, employees and their families. However, the City is commited to living within its means and the community's willingness to pay. No community, public agency or private enterprise was left immune from painful staff reductions these past three years or so.

Comment From Andrea Damewood: Pete, what's YOUR favorite park?

Pete Mayer: Great question, City Hall Reporter Damewood! However, my answer must not offend County Reporter Rice.... a conflict I often face as a City-County agency. Thus, my two favorite parks are Lewisville Park in north Clark County and Vancouver Lake out west. Incredibly large and diverse parks that have great character and protect valuable natural resources.

Matt Wastradowski: Thanks, Pete. It looks like we have one last comment that maybe you can respond to.

Comment From kevin mccann: ah there's that word seniority again. My view is it doesn't work very well in the education area and probably not very well in your area (or any other).

Pete Mayer: We must comply with the State's collective bargaining rights afforded to labor unions and further, bargain in good faith. There are pro's and con's to seniority driven employment decisions. An advantage is that the most experienced staff are retained.

Matt Wastradowski: Alright, that about wraps up our hour! Anything else you'd like to add before signing off, Pete?

Pete Mayer: Thank you for the opportunity and I enjoyed conversing with your readers! Be sure to visit us at www.vanclarkparks-rec.org for the great array of summer camps and programs, pass discounts and outdoor venues awaiting you! Mark your calendars- visit us at Get Outdoors Day at Ft. Vancouver on Saturday, June 9th from 10am to 3pm! Food, vendors and fun celebrating the Vancouver area- the gateway to the great outdoors!

Matt Wastradowski: Great, thanks so much, Pete. And thanks to everyone who took part in the chat today. It was a lot of fun! Have a great weekend, everyone.