Parks escaped most Jefferson City budget cuts

With own funding source, city department was in unique position

Friday's warm weather brought out the young and young-at-heart in Jefferson City to McKay Park's children's playground. Six-year-old Eli Neff enjoys the slide at the Parks and Recreation playground.

Friday's warm weather brought out the young and young-at-heart in Jefferson City to McKay Park's children's playground. Six-year-old Eli Neff enjoys the slide at the Parks and Recreation playground. Photo by Julie Smith.

As Jefferson City recently struggled to make up for a $1.68 million shortfall, concerns about potential cuts and possible furloughs or layoffs were said to have a dismal effect on morale of city employees.

But one city department was uniquely insulated from much of those effects.

Because of the local parks sales tax, the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department largely maintains its own operational budget, with very little general revenue contributions. That situation meant the department had little to fear in terms of cuts or effects on staff.

In April 2005, voters approved a switch from a 16-cent property tax to a half-cent sales tax with no sunset for the parks department. At the time of the ballot issue, the department roughly had a $4.26 million budget, with funding coming from user fees and earned income ($1.3 million), property taxes ($1.1 million), a subsidy from the city ($1.16 million) and a portion of the city’s half-cent capital improvements tax ($700,000).

In the current fiscal year, the department has a $7.9 million budget, with $4.6 million coming from sales tax revenue alone. In the current installment of the city’s half-cent capital improvements tax, which spans a five-year period, the department is slated to receive $2.25 million for parks projects.

The park department’s total budget is more than the city’s total operational budget, once personnel costs are taken out.

Of the city’s original $31 million budget for this fiscal year, which has been cut to less than $30 million in the past month, more than $23.5 million, or 75 percent of the total budget, is spent on personnel expenses. That leaves roughly $7.67 million for all other city expenditures.

The parks department has the largest budget of any city department and 56 percent of its budget is spent on personnel. The Police Department comes in close behind it at $7.8 million for the 2013 fiscal year and more than half of that is spent on personnel costs.

Department Director Bill Lockwood said even though the department for the most part was spared from budget cuts because of its dedicated funding source, there still was some uncertainty in the department as to what impact the budget shortfall could have. He said the department works closely with other city departments and parks staff was concerned about what could happen to friends in other departments.

“We didn’t face some of the same issues,” Lockwood said. “We understand the pain that they go through ... we weren’t immune from worries about what could potentially happen.”

But one of the largest concerns with the budget shortfall was the effect it could have on the department’s larger projects, if they were asked to help contribute to the general fund.

“One of our bigger concerns was if we were called upon to somehow assist in covering the shortfall in the general fund,” Lockwood said.

Lockwood said if they had been asked to assist in making up the shortfall, there were concerns about whether the department would be able to continue moving forward with plans for a multipurpose building, which is estimated to cost about $6 million to construct.

City Administrator Nathan Nickolaus said voters approved the dedicated funding for the parks department, meaning nothing from that fund can be used for general revenue.

Nickolaus said having the dedicated funds, such as the parks sales tax or the lodging tax for the conference center, doesn’t make it more difficult to make necessary cuts; it’s just a reality of government accounting.

“You have to understand governmental fund accounting,” Nickolaus said. “This is the way that governments all run. Jeff City is no different from any other city.”

In fact, the only financial effect of the budget cuts on the parks department was a $20,000 cut to street tree maintenance, leaving $25,000 in that line item, and an increase of $13,300 in administrative chargeback fees to the department. The chargeback fees generally are taken care of by a general fund contribution of 5 percent of collections from the parks sales tax. Lockwood said the fees are charged for the department’s use of other city services, such as the law department, IT department or human resources department.

The cut and the added expense were approved by the Parks and Recreation Commission after being proposed by the City Council, which is another unique aspect of the department. Unlike other city departments, parks has its own governing board, which, as Lockwood said, is “semi-autonomous.”

According to the City Charter, the Parks and Recreation Commission “shall have the exclusive control of the expenditures of all money collected for and deposited to, or appropriated to the credit of the park fund and of the supervisions, improvement, care and custody of the parks.” Members of the commission are appointed by the mayor with the consent of the full City Council.

Lockwood said the commission has a good relationship with the current council, some of which he pins to a good understanding by council members on the role of the commission.

“It is somewhat different,” Lockwood said. “They do have some authority and responsibility to act separately.”

He said the two entities work hard to maintain good relations, as everyone has the same goal in mind to further the city as a whole. The commission keeps the council informed of what’s going on in the department, he said, but also relieves the council of a lot of the operational concerns of the department.

“They’re able to focus on a narrower scope than the council is,” Lockwood said. “Right now, the council sees we have quality individuals on the parks commission.”

Accompanying photo: McKay Park slide

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