Park district seeks help as it faces future with fewer funds

The board governing the Vashon Park District plans to turn to the community for suggestions and support in figuring out how to address its ongoing financial difficulties, a budget picture that is likely to get bleaker in 2013.

At a well-attended meeting last week, board Chair Bill Ameling said the district will see a significant reduction in its budget next year due to lower property values — a drop in levy revenue from $1.3 million to $960,000.

As a result, he said, “The park district cannot be all things to all people, like it was. … We have to find a way to share this burden.”

Later in the meeting, he added: “This park district started on $34,000, and everyone was happy. I’m sure we can make everyone happy with $960,000.”

Exactly how the commission will engage Vashon’s many park users, however, was not decided at Tuesday’s meeting. Commissioner David Hackett suggested public hearings, while Ameling wanted to have the five commissioners meet with various park-related organizations — from sports clubs to dance programs — to see where they might be able to help off-set the district’s declining revenue.

Others in the audience said little discussion should occur until the park district’s financial picture and annual budget become clearer.

“You can’t make any decisions if you don’t have the numbers,” Linda Coldiron, a community member, said after the commission acknowledged it didn’t know how much it would save if it closed the skate park for the remainder of the year. “It’s not sufficiently precise.”

The back-and-forth came in the midst of a spirited meeting that also focused attention on the agency’s current plight — a need to shave $111,000 from its already tight budget between now and December, when its fiscal year ends. Two weeks ago, the projected deficit was $88,000.

Treasurer Michael DeBlasi presented two scenarios to his colleagues on the board and the 50 or so community members in attendance. One, which projected the agency would end its year with $1,300 in cash, called for a slight reduction in staff, employee furloughs and a $12,000 contribution from the Vashon Island School District to top-dress the school-owned fields that the park district maintains.

The second scenario, which would leave the district with $19,000 in cash, suggested more staff reductions as well as closing the skate park for the remainder of the year. It also suggested $12,000 from the school district.

“We’re not taking these measures because we like them,” Ameling said at one point. “We’re taking these measures to stay alive until December.”

But the discussion was bumpy in places. When the issue of the school district contribution came up, someone turned to Kathy Jones, a school board member who was in the audience, and asked her if the district knew about this. It did not, she said.

“The school district would object to the park district backing away from full maintenance of the fields,” she told the park commissioners.

The question of a handful of employee pay raises, put in place by former Executive Director Jan Milligan before she was let go, also created a complex dance among commissioners — with back-to-back motions that initially rescinded those raises then re-instituted them for six weeks while the district studies them to ensure no policies were violated in the way the raises were made.

Another tricky issue was the fate of the skate park. Jenni Wilke, a community member whose son is an avid skater, said she was troubled to read in The Beachcomber that the skate park could close for the remainder of the year. She’s part of an active stewardship group that supports the center; the group had been told last month that the skate park wouldn’t be affected by the budget crisis.

“We trusted you,” she said, sounding frustrated.

Ameling told her the skate park wouldn’t close, adding that precise line items for the two approaches before the board were still under review.

The chair then urged the commissioners to take what he called the “most conservative” of the two approaches, striving to shave $19,000 from the budget but analyzing the situation every two weeks, when it meets. It’s not clear what those reductions will look like until Susan McCabe, the interim executive director, and Marie Browne, the agency’s financial consultant, can spend more time poring over the numbers, he said.

Hackett objected to Ameling’s approach. “I think we’ve drifted aimlessly for too long,” he said, adding that Ameling’s move amounted to “more drifting aimlessly.”

A plan to shave $19,000 from the budget without greater clarity, Hackett added, “is a disservice to the public. We might close the skate park. We might not.”

Hackett called for a five-point plan that included furloughing all staff, imposing a hiring freeze, not allowing any purchases above $1,000 and other moves. His motion was defeated, 3-2, with Joe Wald joining him in voting for it.

Ultimately, the board agreed to take the more conservative of the two approaches.

In an interview after the meeting, DeBlasi said the chances of the skate park closing early this year are remote.

“I don’t think we’ll miss a beat on the skate park. It’s a small program. And because it’s one of the few after-school programs we have, it’s valuable,” he said.

Asked why this year’s deficit went from $88,000 to $111,000 in two weeks, he said it’s hard to know for certain but added that it’s a fluid budget, with receipts and expenses for various programs getting tallied on a regular basis. Park district employees, for instance, are just now adding up the numbers from this season’s operation of the swimming pool, which looks like it brought in about $10,000 less than anticipated. “That number goes up and down,” he added. “Hopefully, it won’t go up too much more.”

As for the $12,000 from the school district, DeBlasi said, the two agencies need to find time to discuss the situation. But he also sounded frustrated, noting the park district took on field maintenance a few years ago to help out the school district.

“When they were in trouble, we helped them out. Now we’re in trouble, and we won’t see a cent,” he said.

Jones, the school board member, said she was sorry to hear of DeBlasi’s frustration with the school district but said the commons agreement — which governs the way the two agencies handle shared facilities, such as fields and gymnasiums — wasn’t made as a way to bail out the school district. Rather, she and other board members said, it was a carefully crafted agreement recognizing the agencies’ shared commitment to the facilities and driven largely by Hackett on the park board.

“I’m not saying we’re not considering options that would support joint goals,” Jones added. “But right now, we’re not just going to give the park district money, because that’s not our mission. Our mission is to support our schools.”


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