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Park district board passes budget that heralds a much leaner agency
The Vashon Park District, facing declining tax revenues and carrying debt for its fields project, unanimously approved a $1 million spending plan that substantially reduces the size of its administrative staff and alters the way it offers programs for youth and adults.
The office staff, last year six people strong, will now be composed of two people — a general manager who has yet to be hired and one assistant. Another significant change is funding for the pool, which will receive $24,000 in revenue to keep it open over the summer, about half the funds it received in 2012. The fields project north of town, meanwhile, will get $95,000 in revenue to keep construction moving forward, while $103,000 from the park district’s budget will go to pay off loans the district took on to help cover the project’s escalating costs and pay for a lighting contract.
The park district is also carrying $95,000 in unpaid bills from 2012 into 2013 and hopes to end the year with $77,000 in reserves — an account it emptied last year to cover a range of unexpected costs.
Asked if the park district can operate with only two administrative staff, Susan McCabe, the interim executive director, answered, “Not the way it has been. It will not be the same park district. We will not be providing the same kind of administrative support we have in the past.”
McCabe, who is leaving the park district at the end of this month, described the budget as “difficult” but also “workable.”
“We’ve got a very small staff dealing with a lot of parks, a lot of responsibility, and that’s going to be particularly difficult when things ramp up in the spring and summer,” she said.
Joe Wald, the district’s new board chair, did not return telephone calls.
With a much smaller staff, the agency will not be able to handle classes and club sports the way it has in the past, McCabe said.
Youth sports registration will be handled by the various clubs, something those clubs say they’re ready to take on, she said. As for exercise and dance classes, instructors for years have directed 35 percent of their gross income to the park district; the district, in turn, has handled registration and publicity and covered some of their insurance costs. Now, each instructor will be able to the Ober Park classroom for $15 an hour; the instructor, meanwhile, handles his or her own registration and publicity.
As a result of the changes, some of the district’s nine instructors have left Ober Park. Kelly Straight, for instance, is taking her popular spinning course to the Open Space for Arts & Community; she purchased the cycling machines used for the class from the park district for $1,200, McCabe said.
Others said they’ll likely stay, but some are troubled by the changes and worried about whether they’ll be able to make their classes pencil out. Sam Van Fleet, who teaches Fitness Over 50 at the park district, said the new structure will be OK for him financially because he doesn’t depend on fitness instruction for his livelihood. But he’s unhappy with the way the district suddenly changed course.
“If this were happening as a result of some sort of mindful, comprehensive change, I’d accept that,” he said. “But that’s not happening. They’re just throwing things overboard so we don’t sink.”
The changes are profound, he added, shifting the organization away from one dedicated to recreation toward an entity focused largely on fields and parks maintenance.
“Parks as we knew it is over,” he said. The agency, he added, “is in disarray.”
Kelly Chevalier, another instructor, is trying to decide if it’s financially feasible to keep her two exercise classes at the park district. Chevalier, who’s been teaching fitness for 30 years, said the classes are her livelihood. At the same time, she added, the business aspect of her work “is not my forte,” and the question of whether she’ll be able to make enough money is unnerving to her.
“I’ve been pacing, pacing, pacing, trying to figure out what I’m doing,” she said last week.
Chevalier added that she’s enjoyed being at the park district and has a lot of fondness for the staff. “I understand that the times are such that these things happen,” she added. “It feels kind of tragic to me.”
Mo Brule, meanwhile, who teaches an exercise class for seniors on behalf of the Vashon Senior Center, said she and her boss, Ava Apple, have decided to move the class to the Penny Farcy Training Center.
“We would definitely stay if we could,” she said. “I love the space and the bars.”
But the senior center can’t afford the new cost structure, Brule said. “It’s very tight at the senior center,” she said.
The park district, meanwhile, made other changes in an effort to shore up its budget. The commissioners, for instance, unanimously approved a new policy mandating user fees, penciling in $45,000 in revenue that the district expects to receive from youth sports groups, theater groups and other organizations that use the facilities the park district oversees.
It’s also considering changing the way it operates the Belle Baldwin House, a historic property at Fern Cove that the park district owns.
The property, a vacation rental that sometimes sits empty, currently doesn’t bring in enough revenue to cover its costs, which includes a $30,000 annual payment for a loan the district took on to refurbish the property.
The district is now thinking about renting the house as a residence. Board members have asked real estate agent Susan Lofland to do a financial analysis of its options, McCabe said.
Capt. Joe Wubbold, president of the Keepers of Point Robinson, said park commissioners have talked to him about making the popular keepers quarters residential rentals, instead of vacation properties, as well.
“I’ll object to it in the strongest terms possible,” he said, noting that such a shift would go against promises made to the community. “Our commitment is to keep those houses available to all the people who come here.”
The park district board has new officers. Here is the new slate, including each commissioner’s email address:
• Joe Wald, chair: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Lu-Ann Branch, vice-chair: email@example.com
• John Hopkins, secretary: firstname.lastname@example.org
• David Hackett, treasurer: email@example.com
• Bill Ameling, member at larger: firstname.lastname@example.org