Parks Department Deals With Cuts

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Facing severe budget troubles last year, Mayor Coleman announced that the city would close eleven of its thirty Rec Centers at the beginning of this year. As a result, some fifty Parks employees lost their jobs. Then, back in March, eight of those closed Rec Centers were reopened: the city set up contracts with several private organizations through the end of the fiscal year – to restore some of the lost programming and services.

One of the centers, the Tuttle Recreation Center, is currently being managed by the Central Ohio Chapter of Campfire USA, along with money from the Columbus Foundation. Amy Boyd, CEO of the Chapter, says Campfire is filling a need in the community.

“We are providing the traditional recreation programs that were offered at the Rec Center, as well as laying on top of that our Camp Fire Programming,” says Boyd.

Boyd says that if it’s fiscally feasible for Campfire – and with the city’s approval – her organization would like to run the Tuttle location beyond the nine month contract.

But among some Parks employees, there are concerns that during such a grave budget crisis, the city is moving towards privatizing the Rec centers.

Brien Bellous is the President of the Columbus Municipal Association of Government Employees/Communications Workers of America Local 4502. Bellous says the employees he represents chose to work for the city because they believe in public service. He says seeing private organizations running these rec centers can be viewed as a problem.

“It’s always a concern. You know, we feel that obviously that the appropriate people to staff those particular areas would be the people that were trained in that job,” says Bellous.

Columbus Recreation and Parks Assistant Director Terri Leist is quick to commend the private partnerships. Leist says that in a time of crisis, these organizations stepped up to the plate in order to help the city and serve their communities – and that they’re doing a great job. But she says the partnerships are not permanent.

“At the end of the day, these are just a temporary measure. Because we believe Recreation and Parks should be providing this for its citizens. It’s part of why people pay taxes, it’s part of why we’re asking for additional funds in August,” says Leist.

Doug Moore is president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees – or AFSCME – Local 1632. The union also represents many of the employees at Rec and Parks, as well as workers throughout the city. AFSCME strongly supports the city income tax increase. Moore says that if it doesn’t pass, city officials have privately suggested that the Rec and Parks Department could be completely eliminated.

“That department has been whacked since 2002. And I would venture to say that they have lost at least 40% of the full-time employees that they had working at Rec and Parks. And why Recs and Parks was chosen as that specific place to start cuts, I don’t know why,” says Moore.

The Rec and Parks department share of the Columbus General fund has been steadily decreasing for almost a decade. In 2000, 6% of the general fund went to Rec and Parks; by last year, that number was down to 4%. That’s an overall funding reduction of more than $3 million.

In addition to operating the Rec centers and swimming pools, Rec and Parks also provides many other basic city services – including removing felled trees after storms and cutting grass in the city’s many parks.