Durham council wants more convincing on penny-for-parks tax

jwise@newsobserver.comFebruary 25, 2014 

— A penny-for-parks addition to the city’s property-tax rate, and a plan for using it, is getting a cool reception from City Council members.

While Councilman Steve Schewel made an emphatic case for more, and better-kept, parks last week, Mayor Bill Bell reaffirmed an opinion he had stated before.

“I'm still back on the page that says we've got to maintain what we've got before going to do something different,” Bell said, echoing remarks he made last August when the Parks and Recreation Department presented a new master plan.

During a City Council meeting last week on the 2014-15 city budget, Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson, Parks and Recreation Director Rhonda Parker and Assistant Director Beth Timson made their case for more, and dedicated, parks money.

Much of their case actually pertained to better upkeep and updating at the city’s 68 parks and its greenways such as the American Tobacco Trail.

“Citizens appreciate what we do and they realize we're working hard,” Timson said. “But we're not really doing what we need to do, we're not meeting our own operational standards.”

Restroom conditions are the most common source of citizen complaint about parks, Timson and Parker said, but almost all park walkways are damaged, fences are rusted and broken, signs are old, bridges don’t meet current safety and access codes.

“Drainage problems, we have a good many of those,” Timson said, and there is a backlog of resurfacing needed at basketball and tennis courts, playground equipment is out of date.

Several factors contribute to the problems:

•  Park maintenance has fallen into a “no-man’s land,” Ferguson said; no city department has clear responsibility for them;

•  Maintaining, repairing and improving parks is more than current parks staff can handle;

•  There is no dedicated source of maintenance money: parks are in a funding competition with rights-of-way, building repair and other public needs.

Currently, according to the parks presentation, there are 17 full-time and 14 seasonal employees for cleanups, mowing and other maintenance and a budget of $1.4 million.

So Parks and Recreation wants one cent added to the tax rate, which would provide about $2.3 million a year and add about $25 a year to the tax bill on a $250,000 house.

Over the penny-for-park tax’s first five years, 49 percent of the revenue would go to maintenance and renovations, 20 percent for added employees and equipment and 31 percent for buying land to connect isolated trail segments, to add playing fields or to get for future parks before the price goes up,

“We don't have great parks and trails, we're not even close to that,” Schewel said. Some playing fields are in such bad shape, “It's an embarrassment sometimes,” he said.

“Our fields are used until they’re not usable any more,” said Schewel, a youth-soccer coach.

But Councilwoman Diane Catotti said she was not keen on land-banking for parks when the city also needs to land-bank for transit-station areas. Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden said she was not ready to raise taxes.

Bell wanted more data on the parks’ total value and how the current maintenance funding matches up to the national average of maintenance costs, “and (to) see how that fits in with what you’re asking.

“I'm not convinced we've got a plan that can maintain what we've got,” Bell said. “We’re going to have some more discussion on this.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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