Changes in the works for parks funding

Southwest Austin resident Rich DePalma is a self-described “parks nerd.” Strolling through a grove of oak trees along a paved trail in Dick Nichols District Park, he points out various features, talks about the park’s history, introduces himself to passers-by and asks residents what ideas they have for improvement.

“[A park] is one of the few places that brings diverse communities together,” he said.

DePalma co-founded local volunteer group Friends of Dick Nichols Park in 2007, he said. To this day he remains committed to making Austin’s parks the best they can be as vice chairman of the city’s Parks and Recreation Board, which gained nine new members in July.

When he stops Southwest Austin resident Brandon Gredler to ask what he thinks of the exercise stations along the trail, Gredler says the city could improve by adding watering stations and using signage and technology to make trails more interactive.

“There are some really cool things you could do ... to make it fun for kids—especially if this is like their free solution [for exercise],” he said.

Hearing such requests, focusing on the details and in some cases making requests into reality are part of the responsibility of the parks board as well as Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, but there are myriad challenges, including funding, PARD Assistant Director Marty Stump said.

Austin parkgoers could see some changes in the coming year, including new amenities, new parks being constructed and changes to how parks get funding, he said.

The city spends a portion of its overall budget in addition to bond dollars every year in order to pay for parks.

Armadillo Park Armadillo Park[/caption]

Paying for parks

The city plans to spend $85.3 million on parks and recreation staffing, maintenance and other expenses in the 2015-16 fiscal year, not including bond dollars for major facilities projects.

Funding for parks comes from two major categories, Stump said.

The first is the city’s general fund as part of the overall budget, which City Council is slated to adopt in September. Most of that money goes toward staff salaries as well as tree care, maintenance and modest repairs, Stump said.

Cherry Creek Park Cherry Creek Park[/caption]

The second funding category is the capital improvement plan, or CIP, which consists mainly of voter-approved bond funds. The last bond passed for parks was in 2012, and bond elections occur every six years or so, he said.

In a recent citywide survey, residents said they would be willing to pay more for parks and libraries, which are funded together, said Ellen Troxclair, the Austin City Council member who represents District 8, which includes Oak Hill and other parts of Southwest Austin.

When individuals and organizations pay to rent parks facilities for events, that money is put back into the city’s general fund instead of being earmarked for parks maintenance, Troxclair said.

Dick Nichols District Park Dick Nichols District Park[/caption]

A Parkland Events Task Force, which City Council created a few months ago, is tasked with revising that  method so the money goes toward parks uses.

“From a funding perspective, I absolutely think that the fees that we’re charging for parks usage need to stay within the parks department and need to go to their intended purpose, which is parks maintenance,” Troxclair said.

In addition to CIP and general fund budgets, parks receive funding through smaller funding streams including parkland dedication—a process through which developers who plan to build housing in the city must either designate part of their site as parkland or pay a fee to PARD, said Ricardo Soliz, division manager with planning and development.

Garrison Park Garrison Park[/caption]

PARD is trying to revise that system, Soliz said.

Developers must pay $650 per unit or lot if they do not designate land. To calculate the amount of land the developer owes, PARD adds the number of units in the development and uses a formula to come up with the number of acres that will become parkland, Park Development Coordinator Randy Scott said.

“Currently our parkland dedication fee and the land requirement are way too low. The fee is not high enough to make a dent in what facilities actually cost,” Scott said.

A parkland dedication fee might provide $35 to spend per linear foot of a trail, for example, but the cost might be closer to $50 per linear foot, he said.

Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park[/caption]

City Council is slated to review an item Sept. 17 that would revise the code amendment and increase the $650-per-unit fee depending on the density of the project, Soliz said. High-density projects would therefore result in more money going toward new facilities at parks, he said. PARD would also examine increasing those fees on an annual basis, he said.

“That has a potential of doubling the department dedication revenue that we get through the site plan process,” he said.

Improving quality of life

Runners at Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park near south I-35 and tennis players at Dick Nichols use public trails and courts, and during hot summer months many residents seek solace in the city’s pools, which are under PARD’s oversight. Local hobbyists can fly radio-controlled model airplanes in a  dedicated field at Mary Moore Searight.

Parks can also help new and small businesses grow, said Green Bird Fitness owner Lauren Whitehead, who started hosting free yoga classes every few weeks at Dick Nichols in July.

“A studio can be a little intimidating,” she said. “I am a staff of one, so it has been really helpful to have the megaphone of Austin Parks Foundation.”

Using the park for evening classes has helped expose the Southwest Austin-based business to potential clients, Whitehead said.

APF coordinates with PARD to help organize events in parks, said William Stout, APF volunteer manager and environmental educator. APF then lists those events on its website and helps promote them.

Stout  also helps the foundation prepare for volunteer projects, including National Public Lands Day on Sept. 26, which will take place throughout Austin.

“[Volunteering at parks] is a personal investment in not only your own property value but your quality of life,” he said.

Improving quality of life was a goal of residents in the Armadillo Park neighborhood, who worked with the city to transform an undeveloped, overgrown parcel of parkland, said Kimberly Gamble, chairwoman of the Armadillo Park Committee and a member of the Armadillo Park Neighborhood Association.

“We said we would really like to take this from being an eyesore … and make it into a nice, naturalized park,” she said.

Trails, meeting circles, a water fountain for dogs, and native plants are among the features of the updated 2.42-acre site near William Cannon Drive. The association held a grand opening in September 2014 to celebrate the park’s debut and is working to update another park near the Odom Elementary School campus as well. [polldaddy poll=9044748]

Making renovations

At Dick Nichols, graffiti, cracks in the paved path through the woods and outdated equipment are among features visitors want fixed, DePalma said.

Local resident Lisa Houston said her children Ben, 5, and Mya, 2, love visiting the Circle C Metropolitan Park near Escarpment Boulevard and MoPac, but she would like to see some maintenance.

“There are a lot of things that are broken,” she said.

Southwest Austinites can use the city’s 311 app to inform city staff about specific improvements they would like to see at their parks, DePalma said. They can also contact the parks board, which meets monthly, reviews policies and proposed projects, and makes recommendations to City Council, he said.

After council approves projects, PARD determines which parks get updates based on an asset management program, assessments, where deficiencies exist and demographic information, such as income and population density, Stump said.

Troxclair said keeping the cost of living down is her top priority, and the city must determine how to pay for parks and recreation as well as priorities such as roads, infrastructure and housing affordability.

“We’re balancing a lot of things that are important to a lot of people,” Troxclair said.