Richland should abandon renegade parks

August 26, 2012 

THE FACT that Richland County is even considering the irresponsible tactic of borrowing money to help operate new and improved parks in the county park system is further confirmation that County Council should ditch two stand-alone, pet parks projects.

Despite not having the money to staff and equip facilities the Recreation Commission is constructing via a $50 million bond issue that County Council approved, the council is pursuing two renegade projects of its own: a $22 million soccer complex in Northeast Richland and an undefined attraction that would inhabit 44 acres the county purchased for $1 million in Lower Richland. While few resources have been steered toward the Lower Richland park, the council has been hording hospitality tax dollars for the Northeast complex.

It’s unclear how these two parks will be managed and maintained. So far, it doesn’t appear they would be run by the unelected, unaccountable Recreation Commission, which inappropriately undercuts the elected council’s authority but possesses the expertise, wherewithal and obligation to operate parks and recreational facilities.

How can the council, in good conscience, continue developing what essentially would be its own separate park system — which it knows nothing about operating — even as it struggles to find funds to operate parks it allowed the Recreation Commission to build?

The commission has asked the council to borrow money to, in effect, staff the improved parks. In an obvious shell game, the $1 million the Recreation Commission proposes borrowing each year would be used to cover routine maintenance, freeing up money in its regular budget to hire staff and equip new parks. Borrowing money to pay for ongoing expenses is the definition of poor fiscal practice.

County Council and the Recreation Commission knew from the start that they needed a plan to pay to operate the new and expanded parks. They also knew that it would be impossible to raise that revenue through the dedicated property tax that funds recreation because it is capped by state law.

The council needs to reject that reckless proposal and consider other funding methods, operating parks at reduced hours, delaying some openings or even delaying construction. Better still, it could abandon its two superfluous parks and find a way to use the money intended for those ventures to instead fund the park system.

While it’s questionable whether hospitality tax dollars can be used to fund the Recreation Commission parks, that would be no more of a stretch than what the county has done in steering the money toward the Northeast and Lower Richland projects. Of course, the more responsible and safer route would be for county officials to convince legislators to change state law to allow hospitality taxes to be used for things we need rather than just tourism-related projects.

Whatever solution County Council comes up with, it should nix the idea of borrowing money for operations and end its pursuit of pet parks projects that consume precious time, effort and money better spent on more important issues.

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