Commentary

Wilson: ‘Penny’ can help put parks back on track

CorrespondentMarch 7, 2014 

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If a society can be defined by the way it treats its poor, the same might be said of a city and its parks. In Durham, that would be poor and getting poorer by the day.

Durham has 68 public “pleasuring grounds,” as parks were called in the 19th century, perhaps the best known being the American Tobacco Trail. The trail is without doubt the spiffiest of our parks, but only because it is so new.

The sad truth is that it, too, is bound for senescence unless City Hall ponies up more dollars for repair and maintenance of the parks.

Curiously, Mayor Bill Bell and other members of the City Council are at best lukewarm toward creating tax-supported, dedicated funding for parks maintenance.

Perhaps Bell hasn’t answered the call of nature at one of the parks’ 37 plumbed restrooms, prime targets for vandals and thieves bent on taking anything made of metal, especially copper.

No wonder, as staff writer Jim Wise reported, that parents are reluctant to let their kids use the restrooms. Not so reluctant is the local wildlife, which finds the restrooms – and that’s using the term charitably – a swell refuge.

This is what you get when you try to maintain 68 properties on a stingy budget of $1.4 million a year. All parks don’t get an equal share, but if they did, it would amount to only $20,588 a year.

As Assistant Parks Director Beth Timson says, “We’re not meeting our own operational standards.”

That’s a soft indictment of neglect, and fully justified.

Durham can do a lot better than that.

I’m no more in favor of higher taxes than Joe Average, but a request from Parks and Recreation for a one-cent tax-rate increase to fund a dedicated revenue stream – $2.3 million a year – for our pleasuring grounds isn’t excessive.

Combined with current funding, that would give the parks $3.7 million a year.

Most of us would agree with Bell that the parks need dedicated funds for maintenance, not expansion. If you can’t take care of what you have, the worst thing you can do is add more.

Think about it: The city has only 17 full-time and 14 seasonal employees to take care of the existing 68 parks. They can be excused for feeling like they’re at the end of the chow line.

Adding to this unnecessary litany of woes is something that should have been corrected decades ago. No city agency has direct responsibility for maintaining the parks.

Repairs and other aspects of upkeep should be under Parks and Recreation, which knows where the most immediate needs are and would be more efficient in meeting them.

Like many other cities its size, Durham grew haphazardly in the 19th century, when its downtown street patterns and urban landscape were put into place. Most of today’s parks are pocket editions, a city block or smaller, created after the fact to serve neighborhoods.

That’s fine so far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t go far enough – these spaces and their recreational equipment are so worn that as City Councilman Steve Schewel said recently, they have become embarrassments.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The City Council need only summon the will to turn the parks around. This is one place where a penny is worth far more than its face value.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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