Bell on parks: Fix first, build later

jwise@newsobserver.comAugust 12, 2013 

Mohamed Hassan, 6, of Durham, plays on the playground at Forest Hills Park in Durham on Sunday, June 16, 2013.

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When the talk at last week’s City Council work session got around to new parks and recreation facilities, Mayor Bill Bell had a question.

“Who has ownership of the facilities?” he said. “I don’t see clear lines of responsibility for maintenance of parks and recreation.”

The question came up after Parks and Recreation Director Rhonda Parker and Assistant Director Beth Timson presented their department’s new master plan and asked the council to adopt it. The plan mentioned public interest in new parks and recreation centers in southern Durham, an athletic complex, new trails and swimming pools.

“I am hard pressed to talk about doing anything new when I’m not comfortable with the level of maintenance I’m seeing now,” Bell said.

Timson had already said better upkeep was a priority in the master plan, which updates a plan from 2003.

“It is our goal that when you walk in a park you see nothing broken, nothing neglected, nothing dysfunctional,” she said, commenting after several minutes’ discussion of broken, neglected, dysfunctional park bathrooms.

The plan itself addresses the issue: “The surest and most direct way of improving park maintenance is increasing DPR’s general operating budget and staff and establishing clear lines of responsibility for tasks. ... ”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Bell said. He mentioned being shown one park where grass was growing in a sandbox and swing sets were rusty. “Who owns the equipment?”

Parks and Recreation installed it, Timson said, but the General Services department maintains it, Timson said. Her department cuts the grass and picks up trash in parks, but has just one technician on staff to handle “flapper valves in toilets that are stuck and putting up new tennis nets ... just keeping things going.”

General Services, meanwhile, has long list of “deferred maintenance” repairs to attend besides those in parks and rec centers, and Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson said he’s trying to clear up the “cloud” created by divided responsibilities.

Upkeep, or its lack, at the city’s 68 parks has been an issue for years. In 1996, then-InterNeighborhood Council President Anne Guyton said the inner-city parks “have really suffered” due to neglected maintenance, which the City Council had repeatedly put off to avoid raising taxes. By 2003, the head of general services described the parks as “broken,” with a list of urgent repairs that totaled more than $6 million.

A 2005 bond issue appropriated $38.3 million for repairs and renovation at about 30 of the parks, along with building two new recreation centers, but it’s not clear what catching up remains to be done and how much it’s going to cost.

“We have been challenged with the parks the whole time I’ve been on council,” said 10-year Council Member Diane Catotti, who suggested a park-by-park assessment like that done for city streets prior to the recently completed resurfacing project.

Council members mentioned some park roads, such as the entrances to the Northgate Dog Park and Spruce Pine Lodge at Lake Michie, that are in particularly bad condition. According to Councilman Steve Schewel, parks have gotten some of its roadways repaired by inviting the public-works department to use them for employee training.

“That’s creative but it’s not a maintenance plan that’s sustainable,” Schewel said.

Bell said he wants a clear outline of what needs maintenance, what it will cost and who will get it done before adding more that will need maintaining.

“I just have a problem with trying to bring on anything new until I see a very clear plan for how we’re going to maintain what we’ve got, who has ownership of it, what is the cost and who has responsibility,” Bell said.

“We’ve got to maintain what we’ve got, prove we can do it before we talk about all these large projects that are going to take additional money,” he said.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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