Bolton: Parks’ funding predicament is Richland County Council’s fault

Associate EditorJuly 31, 2013 

Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— WHILE THE July 1 opening of the new Garners Ferry Adult Activity Center was greeted with much fanfare, just weeks before it was questionable as to when — or whether — it would open because there was no money available to operate it.

Richland County Council already had discarded at least one totally unacceptable avenue to fund the facility — borrowing money to pay for such basic operating expenses — and was exploring yet another bad possibility: using proceeds from the 2 percent tax on restaurant food, which state law says can be used only for tourism-related projects.

That left Richland County Recreation Commission officials sitting on pins and needles and hoping for a small miracle. And that’s exactly what they got.

County administration officials had said that the dedicated tax used to fund parks and recreation wouldn’t yield enough to pay to operate the new facilities that the Recreation Commission is building under its $50 million construction program approved in 2008. But just when things looked bleak, county Auditor Paul Brawley announced that natural growth in property values coupled with a small tax rate increase allowable under a state-imposed cap would cover the agency’s new costs for the 2013-14 fiscal year. Recreation officials had said they needed $800,000 to operate the new adult activity center on Garners Ferry Road and meet some capital needs.

But while that allowed the new activity center — a quite impressive one, I might add — to get up and running, it didn’t address other facilities expected to come on line in the future as recreation officials prepare to enter the third and final phase of their building program.

As I’ve noted before, the Recreation Commission did a horrible job of planning to make sure that it could afford to staff and equip these new facilities. I’ve also made it no secret that I would prefer that the commission become a county department rather than a special-purpose district run by an unelected, unaccountable board appointed by local lawmakers.

All that being said, I’ve got to apologize to commissioners and the staff that runs the Recreation Commission. While they certainly have played a key part in this mess that almost left the county with a new facility sitting idle for lack of funding, the fact is that Richland County Council deserves most of the blame.

Although it was the commission that requested money to build and improve parks, the council didn’t have to OK it. And if it was going to sign off on it, the council should have been responsible enough to demand that a plan be drafted to ensure that park facilities that would require additional operating funds be provided for.

Not only did the council not demand a funding plan for operations, but it exacerbated the problem by greatly expanding the list of bond projects. The commission’s original request was about half of the $50 million package the council ended up approving. The amount grew when greedy council members began steering dollars to their respective districts.

As a matter of fact, council members got so greedy that they failed to see the problem with handing $50 million to a special-purpose district that isn’t accountable to the county or its voters. The council levies taxes for the district, but has no other control over the commission’s operation of the parks system. The panel is appointed by state legislators, who themselves can’t even remove commissioners.

It’s sad to think that most Richland County Council members were so focused on themselves and their individual districts in 2008 that they didn’t even consider the overall needs of the county and the predicament in which they had put future councils and taxpayers. No council would want to face the embarrassment of having new or improved park facilities sitting idle and collecting dust because there is no money to run them. And if the tax dedicated to funding parks can’t produce the necessary funding, the only other thing is to put an extra burden on taxpayers, whether by increasing a general tax or reducing other services and using that money for parks.

To be fair, some on the 2008 council did raise questions about the bond issue, including whether the county would be able to fund operations costs. That’s why the measure only squeaked through on a 6-5 vote.

Close vote or not, the bottom line is the council created this mess and it, along with the Recreation Commission, must find a solution. The current council members who voted for this measure — Norman Jackson, Damon Jeter and Joyce Dickerson — should take the lead. Current members Paul Livingston, Greg Pearce and Bill Malinowski were also on the 2008 council but voted against borrowing the funds; of course that’s not to say they don’t have an obligation to help address this problem.

And it could be a substantial problem. Assistant Recreation Commission director Kenya Bryant was out of the office and couldn’t give me an exact figure Tuesday, but he said the parks agency could need in the area of nearly $2 million more annually to staff and equip the facilities that will be constructed in Phase 3. Phase 3 includes the Kelly Mill sports complex, which will have baseball fields and walking trails, a swimming pool in Eastover and the Hopkins, Gadsden, Perrin Thomas and Gadsden community centers.

While the Kelly Mill complex could require operating dollars next fiscal year, most of the projects aren’t scheduled to be completed for about two years, so it could be July 2015 before additional funding is needed.

That gives the county and the Recreation Commission time to prepare to operate these facilities. Recreation officials have agreed to work with county administrators to come up with a solution. If the dedicated recreation tax ends up not being enough, the answer shouldn’t automatically be to place the burden on taxpayers. Officials should consider things such as operating parks at reduced hours, delaying openings and even delaying construction.

In the meantime, legislators must put the special-purpose district under the council’s control. It’s unfair for Richland County Council to have to take the grief for funding — or not funding — these parks if it doesn’t have the ability to control the agency like it does all other county departments. Once recreation becomes a county department, the council will have more resources and more options at its disposal.

More than that, it will give residents, via the ballot box, a real say in how parks are paid for and operated.

Email Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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