What’s clear for Metro Parks Tacoma over the next two years is that the park district is facing a $7 million shortfall in its general fund budget, a gap that will require trimming positions and making cutbacks across the district.
What’s not so clear is how deeply parks and recreation programs might be sliced – largely because about $868,000 in grant applications to the City of Tacoma remains pending.
“There’s still about a million dollars of unknowns,” said Shon Sylvia, Metro Parks’ director of recreation and community services. “That’s a pretty big number for us.”
Metro Parks officials said this week they don’t expect to eliminate any program under the park district’s proposed $46.6 million general fund budget for 2013-14. But until they get the word on the outstanding grants, questions will remain about how robust the district’s programs will be.
“Our goal is to provide a baseline of programming,” Metro Parks spokeswoman Nancy Johnson said. “There may be a reduction in service for somebody, but I don’t think you’re going to see a wholesale reduction in service – unless something catastrophic happens.”
Metro Parks has applied to the city for human services funding to a variety of recreation programs – including the SPARX after-school program for middle-schoolers, the Summer Meal Distribution program for low-income neighborhoods and fitness and wellness programs for seniors and the disabled.
The city traditionally has covered the park district’s funding requests for such programs. But this year, Tacoma is requiring human services funding beneficiaries to apply and compete for grant dollars. In all, 110 applicants have submitted $11 million of funding requests from a pool that contains only about $5 million of funding.
The parks programs seeking grants don’t rely entirely on that money to operate, Johnson said. But the amount the district receives from the city’s competitive process – if any – will greatly determine funding for those and other programs throughout Metro Parks’ service area.
On Nov. 29, the city’s Human Services Commission is set to recommend to a City Council committee which grant applicants should receive funding in 2013-14.
That means the park district’s funding questions won’t be answered in time for a public hearing on Metro Parks’ budget, set for Monday. And that will leave citizens in the dark about exactly how the recreational and community service programs they most use or rely on will fare.
“There will still be opportunities for the pubic,” Johnson said. “We’ll still take calls, and they can e-mail us with any suggestions.”
That is, at least through Dec. 10 – when Metro Parks’ Board of Commissioners is set to adopt a final budget. A public comment period is scheduled prior to the vote, Johnson noted.
Parks officials this week discussed with commissioners some of the finer details of what is known in Metro Parks executive director Jack Wilson’s proposed budget.
“This is actually a tough budget,” Commissioner Tim Reid said. “ At some point, it’s got to get better. We’re hoping that.”
Due to a 9.1 percent reduction in assessed property values, the park district projects losing about $3.1 million in property tax revenues over the next two years. At the same time, Metro Parks personnel costs are expected to rise by about six percent – or $2.1 million – even though the budget plan calls to decrease staffing.
The rise in employee costs is based on cost-of-living raises of 1.75 percent in 2013 and 2 percent in 2014, plus step increases for unionized workers and merit raises for nonrepresented employees. Medical premiums also are expected to rise by 10 percent each year in 2013 and 2014, with Metro Parks continuing to cover 86 percent of premium costs for employees.
To help make up the shortfall, the park district will dip into about $1.3 million of reserves, reducing an overall fund balance to about 7 percent of the general fund. That’s within the commission’s requirement to keep minimal budget reserves from 5 to 10 percent
The balance of the budget gap will be filled via cuts, including eliminating 15 full-time positions districtwide. Thirteen positions targeted are now vacant, while two of them – in the district’s planning division – are now filled.
Along with the two layoffs, three full-time employees would drop into part-time positions. Cuts also could occur to current part-time staffing, depending on the outcome of the city grant process.
“We looked at it more strategically than across-the-board cuts,” said Brett Freshwaters, Metro Parks’ chief financial officer. “Across-the-board really implies that everybody has to cut by a certain percentage. We’re more flexible than that. We may reduce more in one area than another.”
Dispersing the cutbacks in a tactical way across the district would help minimize impacts to services as much as possible, Johnson added.
As proposed, park maintenance would focus on more big-picture goals of preventative and safety maintenance, reducing certain non-essential tasks, such as regular watering and edging of lawns and fields.
“It will be a real challenge for our staff day-to-day in how they’ll be able to deliver maintenance,” said Steve Knauer, Metro Parks’ director of parks and building services.
The district also would stop providing flower and garden displays in its parks, except for one – at the entrance of Point Defiance, Knauer said.
Other proposed changes include discontinuing the district’s hanging basket program along Ruston Way, and imposing an entrance fee at the W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory in Wright Park to defer upkeep costs, Knauer added.
Some of the proposed changes didn’t sit well with Commissioner Larry Dahl.
Charging a door fee at the conservatory would discourage attendance, he said, and cutting back hanging baskets and flower displays erodes a basic tenant of the parks system: improving quality of life.
“I don’t like that,” Dahl said of leaving park flower displays bare. “To go from what we’ve been doing all these years to nothing is unacceptable.”
Sylvia, the recreations director, noted his division would seek outside sponsorships of traditional parks events and festivals, such as Ethnic Fest, and would re-evaluate youth development programs based on available grant funding.
Despite citizens’ concerns that funding cuts to the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum would leave it on the verge of closing, Sylvia assured commissioners that isn’t the case.
“Fort Nisqually will remain open,” he said.
But, like with the park district’s other general fund programs, operational funding for Fort Nisqually remains undefined for the time being – pending the city grant process, he added.
With Fort Nisqually’s volunteer events coordinator soon set to resign, the parks district “will probably need to replace that position,” Sylvia said. Some buildings at the fort may need to shut down during the week, and staff may reduce hours to weekends, he added.
“With all the unknowns,” Sylvia said, “it’s a fair budget.”
metro parks’ wish list
Metro Parks Tacoma has submitted $868,000 in grant applications to the City of Tacoma to fund a variety of recreational and community services programs. The park district won’t know how deeply those programs – or others district-wide – might be affected until the city’s Human Services Commission recommends grant awards on Nov. 29.
Here are the Metro Parks programs competing for grants:
Environmental Ed Outreach: Exploratory nature education programming and activities throughout Tacoma targeting ages 5-16.
SPARX: In- and after-school at-risk prevention and intervention program within all Tacoma public middle schools.
Sozo: Late night at-risk prevention and intervention program.
Outdoor Adventure Youth Leadership & Apprenticeship: Leadership and job skills training for high school students through outdoor and survival skill building, mentorship and volunteer opportunities.
Active Independent Living for People with Disabilities: Fitness, wellness, cultural and outdoor services for Tacoma and Pierce County residents with disabilities.
Active Independent Living for Seniors*: Programs to encourage senior adults to stay active, maintain independence and be positively engaged in society
Summer Meal Program Distribution: Providing meal services to children, in partnership with the USDA’s national school breakfast and lunch program and in conjunction with Summer Playground program.
* Grant submitted through program partner, Tahoma Associates.
Source: Metro Parks Tacoma