County to leave Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation

Commissioners say split expected to save $300,000 per year

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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Clark County commissioners on Wednesday made the breakup official: the county is leaving Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation and starting its own department.

The move isn't unexpected. The city of Vancouver, which operates the joint city-county department, had been expecting this day to come. And seeing the signs from a distance, the city began planning a "new operational model" for its own parks earlier this year.

And come the end of this year, the split will be made official. The county will now do its own parks administration, planning and other central services it had been getting from the city.

The county intends to form a three-person department with a manager, program coordinator and office assistant. That department is estimated to cost $574,285 in the first year as startup costs are considered. Estimates show an annual operation cost of $372,569 starting in 2015.

If those numbers hold true, the new department will be a financial gain for the county. In 2013, the county budgeted $880,000 to purchase services, such as personnel time for operations and administration, from the city. The county has done its own park maintenance.

The three county commissioners came to a consensus on that plan during Wednesday's weekly board time discussion, directing County Administrator Mark McCauley to inform the city of its new plans and begin hiring staff.

Democratic Commissioner Steve Stuart, who was initially wary of the new arrangement until seeing how it penciled out, cautiously approved of the new county department as long as "measurable outcomes" could be set and monitored to maintain service to residents.

Republican Commissioner David Madore, who has pushed to end the joint agreement and start a county parks department, found merit in Stuart's request, saying the hope was to keep service levels high while "cutting out the middleman" and removing layers of bureaucracy.

All three commissioners also agreed to fund the department out of the general fund. Originally, a proposal suggested the metropolitan park district share some of that burden, but Stuart successfully lobbied to keep those monies separate and continue work on constructing parks and trails promised to voters in 2005 when the metropolitan park district was created.

Still some doubt

Stuart said he remains doubtful the county will be able to operate a three-person department and not see a drop in service at county parks.

"You (reduce $880,000) to ($372,569) with no reduction in service," Stuart questioned. "That doesn't pass the straight-face test."

Clark County Director of Public Works Pete Capell told commissioners his take is that three staff members "is going to be tight to maintain services." Capell said he sees a county parks department having closer to five staff members.

Stuart asked his fellow commissioners if they would be willing to increase staff in the department if service levels dip. Madore and Republican Commissioner Tom Mielke both agreed that would be the plan.


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