Kent City Council looks for funding to restore declining parks

The city of Kent closed the boardwalk at Lake Fenwick Park because of a lack of funds to repair it.

City leaders are still trying to figure out how to return Kent parks to their glory days.

Julie Parascondola, who took over as parks director in December, told the City Council at a May 2 workshop that an answer needs to be found about how to provide sustainable funding for a system with a maintenance backlog of more than $60 million.

”We went from a highly coveted, award-winning park system to a somewhat challenging system and many, many factors influenced that,” said Parascondola, who told the council each day she sees national awards for parks posted on the wall outside her office that Kent received. “We need to decide at what level do we want to reinvest in that. …we as a city and as a community need to ask what are we willing to reinvest in the livability, the health and the quality of life for current residents and those yet to arrive.”

Parascondola said she would like to have some answers over the next several months as the city prepares to develop its next budget.

The National Recreation and Park Association used to recognize Kent for its parks. Six awards decorate City Hall walls. Now Kent’s become a city without a stable funding plan for its 55 parks, nearly half of them in need of repair.

“It’s a shame that you talk about how you walk down the hallway and see the awards,” Council President Bill Boyce said about how parks have changed. “My kids (now adults) were heavily involved in sports and Kent was recognized as the place to be. When you fall off the ladder it’s hard to get back up when you talk about a $60 million backlog.

“But I feel this council is committed to get us back where we need to be. We will get back on top and get the recognition lined back up on the wall.”

The council’s heard a recurring message from parks staff over the last decade about the lack of funding for parks.

Councilman Dennis Higgins remembered the funding challenges for parks when he joined the council in 2010.

“When I got here and through the recession, no department was more pinched than parks,” Higgins said at the workshop. “That was a conscious decision. We got ourselves into this hole. Now we have to make a conscious effort to get ourselves out of it.”

The council last year approved using $2 million from the general fund reserves this year and another $2 million in 2018 from its capital reserve fund to help pay for several park projects. The parks department also gets $1 million a year from the Real Estate Excise Tax, a 0.5 percent sales tax on property deals.

Parks staff told the council, however, it will take $3 million per year for the next 20 years to maintain the current level of service.

It would cost $4.5 million per year for 20 years to do strategic projects as well as the current level of service.

“We have to raise the baseline budget and we are going to have to talk about a package we might want to submit to the voters,” Higgins said.

Voters turned down a streets and parks levy in 2012 that would have raised $18 million for parks and $11 million for streets over six years.

Parascondola said the city must educate voters about the benefits of parks and the need for improvements to the system.

“It’s an educational process first,” she said. “We need to beat the streets and share the need and understanding. If they are not using our parks, why not? We want to create excitement in the system. And sustainable funding will allow us to make strides.”

The council approved an extensive Park and Open Space Plan last June, but without a plan to fund the proposal.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, appointed by Mayor Suzette Cooke in late 2014, recommended last year a capital funding plan for the 40-plus projects on the East Hill, West Hill and in the valley that would require an investment of about $120 million over the next 20 years.

The commission recommended reallocating funds from the city’s business and occupation tax for capital projects at $2 million per year and to ask voters to approve a property tax increase for six years to bring in about $3 million per year.

The group also encouraged parks staff to continue to go after matching grants from federal, state and county governments.

The city has received state grants to help pay for several projects the last few years.

Higgins and Councilwoman Dana Ralph supported a plan last year to spend B&O funds on parks, but the rest of the council opposed the measure because of a promise to business owners when the city implemented the tax in 2013 to only use those funds for street repairs.

Hope Gibson, parks planning and development manager, told the council that 43 percent of the park system’s assets are at or near the end of their useful life. That’s a jump from 32 percent in 2012.

“That’s a pretty startling number,” said Gibson, who added repairs have been made at 13 park assets since 2013. “We are clearly losing ground. The trend is the quality continues to decline throughout the system.”

Gibson also emphasized the need to find an answer.

“A challenge that has not yet been met is obtaining sustainable funding so we can do planning with a confidence so that those that come behind us will enjoy the same quality of parks that we inherited,” Gibson said.

Several of the park projects to be funded in 2017-2018 include: Morrill Meadows expansion for a new YMCA; synthetic turf field at Hogan Park at Russell Road; building the Kent Valley Loop Trail; replacement of the Lake Fenwick Park boardwalk; new playground equipment at West Fenwick Park and Kent Memorial Park; new restrooms and a whiffle ball field at Kent Memorial; and design plans to renovate Springwood Park.