County, city consider future of parks collaboration

Consulting group says current arrangement needs to be reworked

By Erik Hidle and Stephanie Rice

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A consulting group has told Clark County and the City of Vancouver that they need to rework their joint parks and recreation program agreement. But first the two sides must decide if they will move closer together or farther apart.

The city heard from parks consulting group GreenPlay LLC on Monday night, and the county received a similar briefing Tuesday morning. The message from the group is that regardless of the path the two entities choose, the current agreement between the city and county isn’t working very well.

The Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation department exists as a partnership between the county and city. But the structure of the interlocal agreement currently has the county contracting for several parks services from the city.

The department lacks a sustainable business model and clear vision, according to the consultants, and residents’ satisfaction with the maintenance of city parks, adult and youth recreation programs and indoor facilities has decreased from 2010 to 2012.

It’s a business plan that Clark County commissioners agree, on a surface level, must change.

“I’ve heard from all three of us that revising the interlocal agreement … that is something that needs to proceed,” Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart said.

Stuart noted that commissioners may differ on the details, but said, “What we are all talking about is how do we provide better access to parks.”

Last month, Clark County Commissioner David Madore announced he expects the county to reduce the amount of cash it sends to the joint department. The savings, he said, could go toward eliminating parking fees at county parks, a campaign promise he made in the lead-up to last November’s election.

The county collected $373,000 in parking fees at its parks in 2012. The cost to collect those fees was $90,000.

Madore repeated his goal on Tuesday, saying he would like to see a plan drawn up that protects security services and maintenance plans at the parks, while withdrawing support for unneeded services, such as planning.

Stuart and Clark County Commissioner Tom Mielke agreed that there are “efficiencies” to be identified in drafting a new agreement. But Stuart said his goal in finding those efficiencies is to fulfill a promise made to voters in 2005 when they passed a property tax levy to create parks in the unincorporated residential areas.

“With that, we’ve developed 25 parks … some great, great parks, but there is more to do,” Stuart said. The county still has 10 parks to build under the agreement, but is currently without a plan to construct them in the near future. “That was a promise to voters made in 2005. For me, that is my top priority.”

On Monday, interim parks director Laura Hudson told the Vancouver City Council that Madore wants to eliminate parking fees at parks, but she hadn’t yet spoken to the other commissioners.

Some councilors questioned whether it’s worth a loss of services to cut the $3 parking fee at eight city- and county-owned parks and boat launches.

Councilor Larry Smith, a former director of the parks department, said he likes the consolidated system but, referring to Madore, said that one county commissioner needs to be educated on what services the parks department provides and how the department operates.

Councilor Jack Burkman said if Madore gets his way, the city would be best served by a divorce.

“We have one commissioner who is very outspoken (on cuts), and he only needs one more vote,” Burkman said. That’s fine if the county wants to switch to a rural parks model with open spaces, few amenities and little maintenance, but the city’s urban parks need more than that, Burkman said.

Councilor Bill Turlay chastised fellow councilors for speaking ill of Madore when Madore wasn’t at the meeting to defend himself.

Both the county and city agreed the two sides should meet to further the discussion.

The consulting group will wait for feedback from the two sides before coming back with specific recommendations. The consultants plan to have a final report by the end of March.

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov ; erik.hidle@columbian.com.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508; stephanie.rice@columbian.com.