City Council uses surpluses to pay for improvements at six Columbia parks

08/03/2014 11:21 PM

08/03/2014 11:22 PM

City Hall is spending nearly $4 million this year on efforts to improve six public parks, including starting to upgrade deteriorating Finlay Park, Columbia’s signature recreation site.

But the $310,000 City Council has voted to spend on the downtown park, a landmark that has grown well-worn, is only for a redesign plan. Construction is likely to cost $10 million or more if council decides to relocate the Busted Plug water sculpture to Finlay and build a children’s splash fountain around it. Council will settle on construction costs after the redesign plan is presented later this year.

The single largest parks project in fiscal 2014-2015 is the $2 million council has allocated so far toward a $3.2 million conversion of the empty Greenview Park pool into a water park that would offer a six-lane lap pool, a large children’s pool and a tubular water slide.

Altogether, the city has committed $4,018,483 so far toward improvements at current parks during the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2015.

Construction on a $35 million year-round professional baseball stadium is likely to start late this year with opening scheduled for the spring 2016 season.

Council drew the money for existing parks largely from surpluses in the city’s General Fund ($4.7 million), said Columbia’s budget director, Missy Caughman. The money for a redesign of Finlay Park came from an $802,000 surplus from a 2003 meal-tax bond that had not been previously allocated.

“This is all the unassigned fund balance (surplus),” Caughman said, stressing “unassigned.”

“They spent what was available to spend,” she said of the unassigned surplus council members allocated in the current city budget. “This is what we have asked council to do – use unassigned fund balance for one-time expenditures.

But, “this is not all of the city’s fund balance,” Caughman said. “We still have (about $11 million) in the emergency reserve ... a rainy-day fund.”

The next-largest slice of money after the Greenview Park expenditure will go toward a redesign and renovation of Hyatt Park, located across from the former Eau Claire town hall building in north Columbia. The park has a community center/gym combination, baseball fields, picnic tables and lots of grassy areas.

Hyatt Park will get a $500,000 overhaul. “We’re going to see what we can get done for $500,000,” city parks director Jeff Caton said last week. The city is in the early stages of asking the community what it wants in the park before a design plan is put out for bids.

Expansive Southeast Park off Garners Ferry Road is getting $492,000 to build an environmental center and to replace moveable bathrooms with permanent facilities. With its 63 acres in the Lower Richland community, Southeast Park is the city’s largest.

The environmental center and the bathrooms were part of the initial plans for Southeast, which features recreational team tennis, a scenic pond and walking and bicycling trails.

Owens Field Park near Columbia’s downtown airport is to receive $475,000 in upgrades, including construction of a ballfield for disabled children, called a Miracle Field. With private assistance ($250,000) from the Ray Tanner Foundation and Richland County ($75,000), the field is to open next summer, Caton said.

The rest of the improvements to Owens Field Park include new concession and bathroom facilities, more parking space and upgrades to the soccer fields, Caton said. The park off Rosewood Drive already offers facilities for skating, disc golf, an inline hockey rink, little league baseball, rugby, cross-country track, a Frisbee league, baseball and football.

Hampton Park, like Finlay, is getting money ($200,000) only for preliminary work. At Hampton Park, the funds will go toward demolition of its cramped community center and a design for a replacement facility. Money has not been allocated to build a new center for park and neighborhood functions, Caton said.

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