August 11, 2010

City budget cuts $1 million from parks

The Wichita City Council slashed $1 million from its parks and recreation department Tuesday, promising a crowd of concerned residents that key programs won't be cut.

The Wichita City Council slashed $1 million from its parks and recreation department Tuesday, promising a crowd of concerned residents that key programs won't be cut.

However, city officials said they haven't settled on where the cuts will come from or how a "reshaped" parks department will operate or if fees will go up.

The $519 million budget, up from $498 million in 2010, consolidates city departments, furloughs some city employees and eliminates 82 positions. The city employs about 2,300 people.

Meanwhile, the city's property tax rate remains steady.

But the size of government bureaucracy wasn't the issue Tuesday.

Senior citizens and parks advocates packed about two-thirds of the City Council chambers, fearful of reports that the city planned to close recreation centers and swimming pools and slash senior recreation programs to cut $1 million from its parks and recreation budget.

"Don't throw us away. We're not trash," a tearful Francis Ancell told the council.

What the crowd found out from the council is that there are no immediate plans to close anything or to cut senior recreation services. A new business model for the recreation department hasn't been finalized.

However, City Manager Robert Layton was clear: The city's parks and recreation department is going to be streamlined to save $1 million.

That plan may involve the outsourcing of some essential recreation services to groups like the YMCA.

"We don't want you to lose any activities," council member Lavonta Williams told Ancell. "You are important to the youth of this community and I hope that we won't cut any of those departments."

Layton told council members that the plans to reshape how the parks department does its business, developed in conjunction with Wichita State University, remain a work in progress.

But the manager did say that he didn't anticipate closing any recreation centers, just "retasking" how some may be used.

The still-vague changes, though, clearly rattled the audience, with several constituents making their case for services including English classes and the Great Plains Nature Center.

Council member Sue Schlapp said she received a petition signed by more than 200 people opposing the closing of the College Hill swimming pool — which isn't going to happen.

Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell pledged to preserve the senior dances hosted by parks and recreation, the focus of a large group of senior citizens in the audience.

"I've got to have someplace to go," he observed, to chuckles from the bench.

But he told the audience that the parks and recreation department's business model is going to change.

"We could use a private funding partner or someone to partner with on services," Longwell said. "We may change the focus for some recreation centers."

The total parks and recreation budget for this year was $21.6 million. The department's budget includes money for Botanica, five city golf courses, the Wichita Ice Center, 10 neighborhood recreation centers, 11 swimming pools, O.J. Watson Park, a tennis center, the Great Plains Nature Center, 80 playgrounds and 4,800 acres of parks.

Council members praised Layton's leadership and transparency throughout the budget process, and urged him to keep the city's organizational structure under the budget-cutting microscope.

Council member Paul Gray focused on the city's reserve fund, which he said has remained constant at around $22 million throughout his seven years on the council.

Gray said that fund should grow annually.

"Had we done that, we would be able to cut the mill levy and help spur economic development growth," he told Layton.

"Don't quit (streamlining the budget) when the times get good again."

But other residents in the audience weren't convinced the new budget is streamlined enough.

Businessman Craig Gabel said that many of his peers in the private sector have cut expenses by at least 25 percent and have frozen employee wages.

"The reality of the situation is that this budget is an increase," he said.

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