The Herald Bulletin

September 26, 2010

Parks and wrecks: The state of the city's green spaces

Slashed budgets cut maintenance at dozens of municipal sites

By Dave Stafford
The Herald Bulletin

— ANDERSON­ — Kayla Hinners enjoyed a fine late-summer day at Shadyside Park recently, and so did her 3-year-old son, Jonathan Moran, and 4-year-old cousin, Grace Hinners.

“We live right up the road, it doesn’t cost anything, and they love it,” she said as the giggling, energetic children ran and climbed on the playground equipment.

“The second you say ‘park,’ it’s, ‘We want to go, we want to go!’” Hinners said. “It gets them away from the computer and the television.”

Anderson’s City Parks provide recreation opportunities and programs for people of all ages, but it’s getting harder. In an era of local government belt-tightening, perhaps no city agency is doing more with less than the Anderson Parks Department.

Since 2008, the parks budget and staff have shrunk, while the maintenance needs and demand for programs have remained the same or increased.

In money terms, the parks this year have a budget of about 28 cents for every dollar they had two years ago.

In people terms, about two dozen fewer city workers care for parks and plan events and programs than in prior years.

“We don’t mind doing it because we love what we do,” said Rodney Chamberlain, recreation director for the city parks department and an at-large Democratic City Councilman. “But it’s putting wear and tear on the staff.”

“You have to spread yourself in five different directions,” said Anderson landscape architect Tamera Doty-Davis. “It’s exhausting.”

Parks Superintendent John Gates returned earlier this year to a post he had held years before. He inherited a department that was hemorrhaging from budget cuts.

“We really lost in the shuffle about 25 people,” Gates said. Most of those were maintenance staff. Parks maintenance director Tom Tacket now has just two full-time workers responsible for maintaining about 30 park properties.

“Boy, they’re working their butts off,” Joe Miller said of parks staffers. He said there’s not much workers can do beyond emptying trash cans at city parks. “It’s breaking their hearts, too. You can tell.”

Miller opened Unknown Sports at Mays Park in April. The shop caters to skateboarders and BMX riders who use the adjoining skate park at 10th Street and Madison Avenue.

“On a nice, sunny day around 7 (p.m.), we might have 30 to 60 kids out here,” said Miller, a 25-year BMX pro who opened the business by following his passion. “This is $500 and a dream for me.”

The kids who use the park also help keep it up, Miller said. “We’ve got a good group of kids out here.”

BMXer David Ball, who helps out at the park and at Unknown Sports, said Miller returns the favor. “Joe, he sponsors me and a few other people. He helps us out if our bikes are broken.”

“I show them respect, they show me respect,” Miller said.

Those kinds of efforts and attitudes are filling the gaps where city funding is drying up. Many park users are paying with donations of time; some organizations are paying with donations of cash to keep programs afloat.  

Gates said the money crunch has meant lower expectations for routine park maintenance. “We only had so much money to contract mowing this year,” he said. So large, high-use parks such as Shadyside and Pulaski were mowed 19 times, compared to 27 in a typical season.

Lesser-used parks may have been cut only 16 times, Gates said. “That makes a difference.”

This summer, some users of the Thomas R. McMahan Riverwalk downtown complained it was overgrown with weeds and poison ivy. Loose and raised planks and weakened railings can be found on parts of the structure, but Gates said the 20-year-old elevated wood-deck walkway is safe.

Gates acknowledged overgrown vegetation from a bluff above the boardwalk behind the Madison County Jail. “We only had money to (cut) it once this year,” he said.

Some parks might not even have had that. Keith Morris, who volunteers his time to work in city parks, took part in a recent cleanup that began at Riverbend Park at Sycamore and Second streets.

“That park looked like it hadn’t been cut at all,” Morris said. “I was mowing weeds that were 4 to 5 feet tall.” He said volunteer crews hauled away loads of trash, including old roofing materials that had been dumped on the site.  

“You have to wonder at what point can we absorb any more cuts given the limited staff and state of the parks,” said Park Board President Darin Foltz.

“We would like to see the administration and the city council take a good, hard look at other potential areas in the city that can be cut as well. ... I believe we have sacrificed more than our share, definitely,” Foltz said.

Foltz said the cuts to the parks department are troubling because he said departments that account for two-thirds of the total city budget, police and fire, haven’t reduced their budgets.

“You can’t continue to increase those budgets while cutting everyone else’s,” Foltz said. “I understand public safety is important; however, quality of life is important for our citizens as well.”

Foltz, a 6-year Park Board member, has been the subject of an effort by Mayor Kris Ockomon to remove him from office. Ockomon’s effort to conduct a hearing to oust Foltz has been blocked by a judge, and whether the hearing may proceed remains a question for the courts.

Ockomon did not respond to numerous requests for comment for this story.

With diminished dollars from local tax revenue, the parks have had to appeal for donations to provide services that in the past were staples. For instance, Southside Pool, the parks department’s only functioning swimming pool, opened only after Saint John’s Health System agreed to fund it for an abbreviated summer season.

It’s unlikely the pool will open next year without another donation.

Doty-Davis, the landscape architect, has been advocating the creation of a parks foundation that would allow collection of donations to support facilities and programs and serve as a vehicle for writing grants for the parks department.

It’s needed, she said, but it’s not without a downside.

“If you live by the grant, you die by the grant,” Doty-Davis said. “If that money is not there, the program is gone.”

Some have suggested the parks give up some public lands, but Gates said most parks properties were deeded to the city under the condition that they remain parks in perpetuity.

Contact Dave Stafford: 648-4250, dave.stafford@heraldbulletin.com