Editorial: Richland County needs a long-term plan to pay to operate improved parks

WHILE IT APPEARS the Richland County Recreation Commission will get the money it needs to open a new recreation center next year without County Council having to cut some other service or dip into the general fund or reserves, the agency still needs a plan that outlines how it will pay to operate other facilities yet to be completed.

The Recreation Commission is in the midst of a $50 million building campaign. As more construction is completed, more money will be needed to equip and staff the facilities. The commission and County Council knew that when the council agreed in 2008 to let recreation officials borrow money for new park projects. But they failed to devise a plan to pay for operations costs, which all too often leads to an unexpected burden being placed on taxpayers.

Recreation and county officials have been struggling to find the needed funding, with practically no attractive options available. Richland officials had said the dedicated property tax that funds county recreation, which is capped by state law, would not yield enough to pay the operations costs.

At one point, recreation officials asked County Council to borrow money to, in effect, staff the improved parks. It would have been little more than a shell game, with the $1 million the Recreation Commission proposed borrowing each year being used to cover routine maintenance, freeing up money in its regular budget to hire staff and equip new parks. But borrowing money to pay for ongoing expenses is the definition of poor fiscal practice.

Fortunately, the council never bought into that idea. At the same time, that left the commission still looking for an answer to a question without a good remedy.

During budget discussions for the fiscal year beginning July 1, the commission requested money to fund the new recreation center. County Council began looking for ways to provide the funding, even exploring whether hospitality taxes, set aside for tourism-related projects, could be used.

But before that could happen, County Auditor Paul Brawley produced figures that show that natural growth in property values coupled with a small tax rate increase allowable under the state-imposed cap would cover the agency’s costs. Recreation officials have said they need $800,000 to operate the new center and meet some capital needs.

While it’s good news that the center’s costs will be covered next year, what will happen in the future as even more improved facilities come on line?

Recreation and county officials must devise a plan now that details how future facilities will be equipped and staffed. And the answer simply can’t be to place the burden on taxpayers. In the short term, it may be that, if the dedicated tax for recreation doesn’t cover the cost, officials must consider operating parks at reduced hours, delaying openings and even delaying construction.

Ultimately, the only real long-term option is for legislators to put the special-purpose district, overseen by an unelected, unaccountable panel appointed by county lawmakers, under the council’s control. Once recreation becomes a county department, Richland would have more resources and more latitude to make adjustments needed to address this funding problem.