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Park district passes budget, looks ahead

The Vashon Park District passed a $1 million budget for 2014 last week, with four commissioners approving the spending plan and Scott Harvey, the newly seated board member, dissenting.

While much is expected to remain the same at the park district next year, the budget reflects major changes ahead for maintenance and lodging and potential challenges at the VES fields, according to the district’s General Manager Elaine Ott. In a new maintenance model, the district will contract out much of its work, Ott said, and to manage lodging at Fern Cove and Point Robinson, it will employ a full-time staff person tasked with overseeing the facilities and increasing their bookings.

“It’s a different way of doing business,” commissioner Bill Ameling said at the Dec. 10 meeting. “So we’ll all learn together.”

Park district commissioners plan to reduce the district’s maintenance staff and hire out a variety of tasks employees have typically done, including plumbing, tree service and electrical work. In the busy spring and summer months, the district will add seasonal help.

The idea behind this change, Ott said, is to receive high-level, professional service in the areas contracted out. One maintenance position has already been eliminated, she said, and the new model is expected to cost roughly the same as the current one, though there will likely be an adjustment period.

“The challenge is to manage it effectively and cost effectively,” she said.

Both she and Jason Acosta, the maintenance supervisor, have much to learn, Ott said, including how best to navigate the bid process and establish and manage contracts. Hiring and training seasonal workers may also present challenges, she noted. To assist with the transition, the district may bring in consultants who specialize in the management of park district maintenance, she said.

Earlier this year, some district commissioners expressed a desire for the district to get out of the lodging business and contract out management of its three rental houses. However, the year ended with a plan to bring on a new staff member responsible for the Point Robinson and Fern Cove rentals, including raising the occupancy rate by 35 percent, maintaining the lodging budget and tending to or contracting out maintenance and cleaning.

Commissioner David Hackett, whose final board meeting was last week, said that the budgeted expenditures, which include $45,000 for the lodging manager’s salary, seem high for managing three properties. Vashon Park District employee Robin Miller concurred, commenting that nearly $50,000 to oversee three guest houses seems like much more than most Vashon innkeepers would expect to make.

The matter that drew the most conversation at the meeting, however, was the projected cost for the VES Fields and the work that needs to be completed to meet the requirements of the King County clearing and grading permit, ranging from paving the parking lots to installing storm drains and curbing. The park district has not yet received official estimates for the remaining work, but chair Joe Wald estimated the cost at $134,000.

Harvey, a banker who has been critical of the park district’s financial management, spoke up at the meeting, saying the board should have accurate figures before allocating any amount to the project.

“It is bad business to put it in the budget without hard numbers,” he said.

Harvey noted that the county permit does not expire until 2015, so not all of the work needs to be done next year, and fundraising might provide additional money to complete the project.

The rest of the board appeared unconvinced, however, with Hackett saying the community would not provide additional funds because the project has been “too polluted” and Ameling stressing his belief in the importance of allocating the funds in the budget, moving forward quickly and not “pandering to the critics.”

Following the meeting, Harvey elaborated on his position.

One of the challenges with the field project from the beginning, he said, is there have not been hard numbers, a problem he believes has contributed to significant waste. He suggested the district get solid numbers and then talk about how best to proceed. He also stressed the importance of reaching out to the community and asking for more donations.

“If you don’t ask them, you don’t get it,” he said. “We’re not going to get $134,000, but what could we get?”

It’s important that the park district create stronger partnerships and that user groups chip in additional funds, he said.

“Zero is not acceptable,” he added.

Harvey also noted he would like to retain an engineer to work with the county to determine if some of the work slated for completion might not need to be completed after all because the scope of the project has changed over time.

“I think that would be money well spent,” he said.

Commissioner Lu-Ann Branch, who was recently re-elected, said in an interview this week she feels work at the fields should be completed as soon as possible so that costs do not go up and so the district can move on.

“We need to finish it up and get it behind us,” she said.

The $134,000 in the budget serves as place holder of sorts in her opinion, she said, noting that the budget can be changed as more information comes in.

“It’s a guide,” she said. “It’s not set in stone.”

Branch said she also believes hard numbers are critical before any more work is done at the fields and that she is in favor of a professional consultation to determine if less work might satisfy the county requirements. Any work done at the fields beyond the scope of the county permit should not come from park district funds, she said, but from user groups or grants.

Branch noted she has received some criticism from the public for voting with the majority of the board on the budget, but said people should not measure her tenure on the board by one vote.

“People just need to stay tuned,” she said.

In an interview following the meeting, Ott said she believes Harvey made some good points and noted that she is concerned about the fields project. The remaining work must be completed, she stressed, as the stakes of not doing so are extremely high, including fines, possible revocation of grant funds and closure of the fields.

At the same time, she said, she is concerned about the lack of hard numbers in the budget to complete the work. The board has also charged her with oversight of the remaining work, including obtaining bids for the project and delineating the scope of work. Her only construction oversight experience is what she has learned since beginning at the park district last February.

“I’m nervous,” she said. “Meeting the King County requirements, that’s pretty big.”

Overall, the park district board approved a budget that shows $1,050,520 in levy income. The largest expenses include $267,000 for administration, $260,000 for maintenance, $134,000 for the VES Fields and $149,000 for the repayment of bonds and loans. The two largest bonds are a $300,000 bond taken in 2008 for lodging renovations and a $400,000 bond secured in 2011 for the fiels project. The final payments for the bonds are slated for 2018 and 2015, respectively, Ott said. Smaller budgeted amounts include $25,500 for the Vashon Pool, $15,000 for lodging and $50,000 for a reserve fund.

Both Harvey and Branch noted they are eager for January, when the full new board will be in place.

“I think the community is dissatisfied with business as usual,” Harvey said.

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