Kent city leaders are ready to make parks a priority again after years of cuts to the department.
“I’d like to go on record to say this is our next challenge and opportunity,” City Council President Bill Boyce said. “You can’t have a great city without a great parks department.”
Boyce made the comment after an 80-minute, 62-slide presentation from the parks department and a consultant on June 18 to the council about a new Comprehensive Recreation Program Plan, including a goal to return Kent parks to its national award-winning days in the late 1980s and early 90s.
“I pledge to do what I can to see what we can do to bring this back up to 87, 89, 90 and 91 when we were getting gold medals,” Boyce said about the honors from the National Recreation and Park Association. “I’d like to see in three to five years to get that gold medal back.”
The city hired Indiana-based Pros Consulting, Inc., for payment of up to $92,160 to work with city parks staff and residents to come up with a comprehensive parks plan. Pros Consulting is the same company the city hired for $60,000 in 2017 to design a business plan to try to make the Riverbend Golf Complex profitable.
“We have to think strategically, it’s critical for us as a department,” said City Parks Director Julie Parascondola. “In the past and present we continue to receive a disproportional share of budget cuts. … Our staff is in a constant defensive position to try and balance the community need and the funding. We need to work with the community to jointly decide how we do that.”
This was only an initial report to the council. Pros Consulting and parks staff are scheduled to return in August with a final report that will include funding recommendations.
City leaders have been scrambling about how to fund parks since voters in 2012 turned down a streets and parks levy that would have raised $18 million for parks and $11 million for streets over six years. The council adopted a new business and occupation tax in 2013 to pay for street repairs.
In 2017, city leaders raised the B&O warehouse square footage tax starting in 2019 to bring in about in about $3 million per year to help pay for parks maintenance and other capital improvement projects. Several projects have been completed in the past couple of years, with the help of state grants and the real estate excise tax on all property sales, including a new Lake Meridian Park fishing and swimming dock for $822,000 and new synthetic turf fields at Hogan Park at Russell Road for $1.9 million. Both projects were done in 2017.
The city also contributed about $10 million to the new Kent YMCA opening in September on the East Hill.
But for the most part, the council has dealt with other issues besides parks, including restoring the city’s general fund balance and preparing for the loss of about $4 million per year in annexation sales tax funds and potentially the streamlined sales tax mitigation funds of about $5 million per year, although the Legislature extended that for at least two more years.
The council raised the B&O tax again last year for upcoming years to help make up for the lost state revenue. But the council also made cuts, mainly to the parks department with the reduction of seven jobs over the last six years, even though overall city staff has gone up by about 100 jobs.
“When we looked at the fiscal cliff (loss of state revenue) and making the tough decisions with the budgets, parks is the department that got hit the worst out of all of them,” Councilmember Toni Troutner said. “Looking back, you (parks director Parascondola) had to make some very big cuts. We do need to make this a priority as we move forward. We know parks are important to quality of life. Parks are going to be very, very important for what people look at when they consider moving to Kent and looking for a job in Kent. People look for those green spaces.”
A recent survey of city residents showed fitness and wellness, outdoor events, cultural performances, outdoor recreation and aquatic programs as the most unmet needs of the community. The most popular programs include community events/festivals, sports leagues and arts/culture. Residents also want better maintenance of parks/facilities and a higher quality/number of indoor amenities.
Leon Younger, president and founder of Pros Consulting, told the council the new Kent YMCA will help solve a few of the parks department shortfalls.
“The YMCA coming in will help in some areas but is not a save all,” Younger said. “It will add value as another provider but not remotely replace what is needed in this town. They will have an impact in that part of the community.”
The city will close the Kent Meridian Pool it rents from the Kent School District with the opening of the YMCA.
“The existing aquatic center will go by the wayside, and leave one pool within the city, which is limiting,” Younger said.
The city needs to work with the school district about improving facilities and scheduling programs since each entity shares fields and facilities, according to the report.
A few changes, such as higher fees for programs, are expected to change in 2020, but other larger adjustments will roll out with the 2021-2022 city budget as part of the eight-year action plan.