[r72] A Clere view of the Statehouse: Time to stop playing around with parks (2/11/2011)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Start Date: 2/11/2011 All Day
End Date: 2/11/2011
Seventeen years ago, New Albany and Floyd County combined their parks, forming the New Albany-Floyd County Department of Parks and Recreation. It was a progressive move and a great example of how efficiency and taxpayer savings can be achieved by consolidating government.

The concept was good, but the merged department hasn't lived up to its original promise - or to its potential. Funding has been inconsistent. In late 2009, for example, the parks budget was slashed by approximately a third. The cut exceeded the entire remaining budget for the year. Thanks to strong leadership, the parks department found a way to make do.

There has been discussion of selling park property for commercial development to solve short-term city and county budget problems. In terms of land area, Floyd County is the second smallest of Indiana's 92 counties. By population, it ranks 21st, according to a 2009 population estimate. We don't have any parks to spare.

In addition, private donors are ready to provide major funding for new facilities, including a public swimming pool, but they are hesitant to start writing checks until they see a long-term commitment to parks. No one wants to write a $250,000 check only to see a cash-strapped council reduce its contribution to parks funding by an equivalent amount.

Last month, I introduced a bill that would convert the parks department into an independent park district. The legislation, House Bill 1507, is scheduled for a committee hearing Thursday.

In looking at the documents that established the joint parks department, I saw a lot of familiar names, and I was reminded of how most initiatives build on the work of others. This is no exception. Two of the original supporters of the combined parks department are in public office today - New Albany Mayor Doug England, who was in his first term as mayor, and Floyd County Commissioner Chuck Freiberger, who was on the county council. Their leadership - along with that of many others - is needed again. It's time to realize fully the potential of the original initiative, and to make it permanent.

Outside of Indianapolis, which has merged city-county government, Floyd County's city-county parks department is unique. The district would be Indiana's first park district and could be a model for the future.

Under the bill, the park district would be overseen by a nine-member commission. The members of the commission would be appointed by city and county elected officials - three by the county commissioners, two by the county council, two by the mayor of New Albany and two by the New Albany City Council. It would be similar in makeup to the current parks board, which is composed of 10 members - five appointed by the mayor, two by the county council, two by the judge of the Floyd County Circuit Court and one by the commissioners.

Some have questioned whether there would be sufficient accountability from an appointed board - as opposed to an elected board. In fact, by separating the parks from other local government functions, we could see greater accountability. There would be no confusing park funds with other monies - or park priorities with other demands.

The issue of accountability deserves full discussion, but let's be clear. The bill would not create a new government function. All it would do is separate an existing function and make it stand on its own. There would be no increase in property taxes. Annual increases would be limited by the same formula that applies to other units of local government. Under the bill, the district would start out with an annual operating budget of $1,000,000 - about $50,000 less than last year's budget - and a $150,000 fund for capital improvements. The fund already exists; it would simply be moved to the park district.

The city's and county's tax levies would be reduced to offset the new district's levy. Because the county has been paying less than its fair share, the county's tax levy would have to be reduced by more than it has been contributing. That will be difficult, given the challenges the county faces, and it may need to be approached incrementally. The city, on the other hand, has been paying more than its fair share, so it might even see some funds freed up for other purposes - again, with no increase in property taxes.

The issue of appointed boards has been raised in this year's legislative session, and it's an important discussion. Senate Bill 550 would close a loophole that the city of Carmel used to issue $95 million of debt through its redevelopment commission, which, like others - including New Albany's - is appointed. House Bill 1225 would require public library budgets to be approved by a municipal or county council, if a majority of the library board members are appointed rather than elected. I'm very open to placing reasonable restrictions on the new park district, as long as those restrictions don't undermine the benefit of an independent district. One change I plan to propose Thursday is to require county council approval of any park district bond issue that would be supported by property taxes.

There have also been questions about the transfer of property. Under the bill, all existing park property would be transferred to the new district. It's important to remember that the people of Floyd County already own the parks, and that wouldn't change. The legislation includes a provision to keep the district from selling property and reaping a windfall. Proceeds from any sale within the first 10 years of the district's existence would revert to the original owner. In other words, if the district were to sell a park that was owned by the city, the city would get the money from the sale, and likewise for a county-owned park.

Thursday's hearing will be broadcast live on the Internet starting at 8 a.m. Go to www.in.gov/legislative. Several folks from Floyd County are planning to make the trip to Indianapolis to testify. If you wish to comment on the bill prior to the hearing, e-mail me at h72@in.gov, or call my legislative assistant, Clinton Bohm, at 1-800-382-9841. Floyd County residents need to be heard on this issue, and I will weigh every comment.

It's time to get politics out of the parks. As someone who coaches soccer at Sam Peden Community Park, I know the parks are already crowded enough.