Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission (Jan. 19, 2010): As part of a project to upgrade the athletic fields at Fuller and Olson parks, members of the city’s Park Advisory Commission approved an increase in fees to use those fields. One commissioner described the fields, which had previously been in serious disrepair, as “a thing of beauty.”
Three speakers during public commentary, all representing groups that use the fields heavily, said they didn’t have a problem with the fee hike, but hoped that the change could be phased in over three years, rather than implemented this season. The recommendation for an increase, along with changes in how the fields are used, will be forwarded to city council.
Commissioners also approved recommendations from the task forces that are working to raise revenues and cut costs for Mack Pool and the Ann Arbor Senior Center. Commissioner Tim Berla clarified that the PAC resolution was primarily an “atta boy!” for the work of the staff and task forces, and support of the direction they’re headed. The recommendations – which aim to keep those operations open – will be presented to city council at their Feb. 8 meeting.
And finally, as a bonus for readers who stick with this report until the end: One commissioner is championing an urban dog park, and has identified a potential location within the city.
Fee Increases for Fuller, Olson Fields
The city has invested $1.3 million in renovating some of its athletic fields: Seven at Fuller Park, near the University of Michigan medical complex, and two at Olson Park, on the city’s north side at the corner of DhuVarren Road and Pontiac Trail. In May of 2008, PAC formed a task force to evaluate how these fields would be used and maintained after the project was completed.
The task force is recommending rate increases for these fields, as well as changes in the way the fields are used. The proposed rates are:
- Fuller fields 1-5 and Olson fields 1-2: $60/hour (full field); $40/hour (half field)
- Fuller fields 6-7: $32/hour (full field); $20/hour (half field)
Previously, rates ranged from $16 an hour to a high of $31.50 an hour, depending on a variety of factors, including residency (Ann Arbor residents were charged lower rates) and time of day (rates for prime time, between 4-8 p.m., were higher). The lower fees at Fuller fields 6-7 reflect more minor renovations done there and less need for upkeep, according to city staff.
The task force provided some examples of fees for other outdoor fields. Locally, outdoor fields at the WideWorld Sports Center cost $90 for a full field and $60 for a half field. Fees in other cities – including Kalamazoo, Mich., Madison, Wisc., and Boulder, Colo. – are comparable or higher. East Lansing is a notably lower exception, with fees in the $17 to $33 range. Commissioner David Barrett said that’s likely because the East Lansing fields are in poor shape.
Staff also noted that fees to use other fields within the parks system – including Allmendinger, Southeast Area and Buhr Park – remain unchanged.
Public Commentary on Field Fees
Three people spoke about the athletic fields during the time set aside for public commentary.
Dave Morris of Ann Arbor Ultimate said he appreciated the new fields, and said the players in his group were okay with the new fees. He wondered how the city would be maintaining these fields – so far, he said, maintenance hadn’t been great. Players also had concerns about cancellations. Last year, the number of times that city staff had canceled play because of bad weather had been onerous, he said, especially because cancellations occurred several days in advance, when conditions might have improved by the originally scheduled date.
Todd Mercer of the Ann Arbor Soccer Association also praised the new fields, saying the renovations were excellent. His question concerned the goals and nets – currently, those used at Fuller fields were owned by the association. The task force was recommending that the city take ownership of that equipment. If it does, Mercer said, the association would like some kind of consideration for those that it owns. Mercer also cited an issue with the configuration of the fields. The proposal calls for fees based on the use of full fields and half fields. AASA has been renting six to nine half fields at a time, he said, but in the new configuration, there will only be five half fields available. Finally, he said that proposed fees represent four times the amount that was charged in the past. [The AASA had been charged a special rate of $16 an hour.] He suggested phasing in the new rates over a three-year period, for groups that rented the fields in 2009.
Chris Cristian of i9sports, a youth sports franchise, said he didn’t have any problem with the new fees, but supported the idea of phasing them in over three years. Last year had been difficult, he said. His business is trying to keep costs down for its participants while increasing the amount that the firm pays their employees. Phasing in the new rates would help, he said.
Commissioners’ Deliberations on Field Fees
Tim Berla began by asking about the field configurations, which had been questioned during public commentary. In the past, some groups had divided the fields into thirds, he noted – would there be any accommodation for that? And since the Ann Arbor Soccer Association needed more half fields, would there be any flexibility for them?
Jeff Straw, the city’s deputy parks manager who also served on the task force, said they’d evaluated the usage of the fields and determined the current approach as the best way to maintain the quality of the fields and prevent over-usage. [A cover memo for the PAC resolution states that a maximum of 30 games per season would be scheduled per field. Periodically, fields will be temporarily taken out of play, on a rotating basis, to allow for maintenance and "rest." Because of these changes – and the fact that three of the fields won't be ready for play this spring – the parks staff estimates that 750 games will be scheduled during the combined spring, summer and fall seasons in 2010. Last year, about 950 games were scheduled.]
Straw described the approach as a work in progress. As they assess the conditions of the fields during the upcoming year, they might adjust the number of games allowed in future years. In response to another question from Berla, Straw said they could consider phasing in the fee increase.
Dave Barrett praised the staff for its work, and reiterated Straw’s comments about the administration of the fields as a work in progress. The city invested a lot of money in these renovations, he said, and have raised the quality of the fields significantly. He noted that some of the work hasn’t even been completed yet. There will be some sticker shock about the fees, he cautioned, but everyone he’d talked to in the soccer community acknowledged that the previous fees were inordinately low – and the fields previously reflected that. He encouraged residents to go and look at the fields, describing them as “a thing of beauty,” with the quality 100 times better than in the past.
Barrett also commended AASA for providing the goals and lining the fields. He wondered whether the city would be willing to buy the equipment from the association. Straw said that might be possible.
Gwen Nystuen asked whether there would be signs telling people about the changes. Straw said they had put out signs last summer, which would remain this season. Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, said it was also important to convey to the public that this work was paid for out of the voter-approved parks millage.
Julie Grand asked if the staff had received feedback on the fact that there’d be 200 fewer games scheduled on those fields in the coming year. Not yet, Straw said. The upcoming season will be somewhat unusual because three of the fields – Fuller fields 1-3 – won’t be ready for play in the spring, which will affect the number of total games scheduled. Straw said they’re hoping to encourage people to use other fields in the parks system – the Fuller and Olson fields will be top tier, but others are available for play.
Doug Chapman wondered why the task force had decided not to offer different fees for residents versus non-residents, as they’d done in the past. In general, Straw said they were trying to move away from that approach, given the amount of staff time required to confirm the status of large user groups. Smith added that it’s difficult to determine the status of large groups – if half of the team is from Ann Arbor, does that give the entire team resident status? What if only a few players are residents? It would require a staff member going through the team roster each time, he said.
Grand said she hoped that in scheduling games, there’d be a way to give priority to residents who’ve used the fields in the past.
Scott Rosencrans asked how the maintenance of the fields would differ from the past. That question was fielded by Matt Warba, the city’s supervisor of field operations. He said their biggest challenge prior to the renovation was that they didn’t have a handle on how much the fields were actually used. There was also no way to prevent people from using the fields even when they weren’t scheduled – there was no gated fence to bar entry, so fields never had the chance to “rest.”
Simply limiting the number of games, Warba said, would be a dramatic improvement in their ability to maintain the condition of the fields. Faulty irrigation systems have been fixed, he added. The parks staff plans to aerate the fields more and fertilize more initially to make sure the grass is established. All of this hinges on the ability of the staff to control access to the field, he said.
Outcome: The commission unanimously approved the resolution recommending a fee increase and usage changes for Fuller and Olson fields.
Mack Pool and Senior Center Recommendations
Several supporters of Mack Pool and the Ann Arbor Senior Center attended Tuesday’s meeting, but only two people spoke on those topics during public commentary.
James D’Amour began by saying that he served as a park commissioner in 2002-03, and that he’d also been a planning commissioner. He had been part of the previous review of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space plan, known as PROS, and he wanted to let them know that he’d be interested in participating in the upcoming PROS review as well. D’Amour also described himself as a master swimmer who was an avid user of Mack Pool, and that he hoped the commissioners would approve the recommendations of the task force, including the suggestion to raise fees.
Lisa Dengiz said she’s lived in Burns Park for 25 years, and was concerned that the senior center might close. The community is aging, she said, and needs a place like the center. She was very impressed that the nonprofit Ann Arbor Seniors Inc. was stepping forward to help, and urged the commissioners to support the center until it can become a sustainable 501(c)3 nonprofit.
Presentation: Mack Pool Recommendations
Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, presented the recommendations from the Mack Pool and Ann Arbor Senior Center task forces. The groups had been formed by city council last year after city administrator Roger Fraser recommended that the facilities be closed. [For background, see previous Chronicle coverage: "Task Force Floats Ways to Save Mack Pool," "More Options for Ann Arbor's Mack Pool," "Seniors Weigh In on Fate of Center" and "Task Force Tries to Save Senior Center"]
Smith first walked PAC through the list of recommendations for Mack Pool, which faces a projected $102,413 deficit for FY 2010, beginning July 1. Roughly $40,000 in new revenues and expense cuts are identified – staff and the task force are still working on ways to address the remaining $60,000 or so deficit.
The Mack Pool recommendations are:
- Purchase and install a thermal blanket for energy savings: $10,000. Next to personnel, energy costs are the highest expense, Smith said. The gas bill at Mack is about $40,000 annually.
- Install LED lights on the pool deck: $2,000
- Decrease the number of computers and applications: $4,000
- Raise fees 25% for masters swimming and for season passes: $8,375. This suggestion came out of one of the public meetings, Smith said, and was supported by a survey that asked if respondents would be willing to pay more to swim at Mack. Of the 192 people who completed the survey, 96.9% said yes.
- Add a masters Saturday morning class: $2,080. This change was already implemented earlier this year.
- Hold an annual fundraiser: $1,000
- Increase pool rental: $9,500. Smith said Club Wolverine Swimming is interested in renting 12-14 hours weekly. Regular rentals are important, he said, because they provide a dependable source of revenue, with a good profit margin.
Additional revenues may come from the change in a 1974 agreement between the city and Ann Arbor Public Schools, which governs the use of Mack Pool. The pool, located inside of Ann Arbor Open school, is off limits to the public for most of the time that school is in session. A new agreement would incorporate cost-sharing with the school district and provide 14 more hours for city programming, Smith said, ranging from water aerobics to swim classes to longer times for lap swimmers. More programs would allow the city to generate more revenue at the pool.
Another major source of potential revenue could come from allowing a swim school to operate at Mack Pool. The city hopes to find a group or individual to operate a swim school at Mack, which could bring in another estimated $50,000 annually.
Smith said the schedule would be adjusted based on additional hours of programming, which meant that some people would be moved into slots they aren’t used to, “and that’s just the reality of it,” he said. To accommodate an evening lap swim, for example, synchronized swimmers had been bumped to a later evening period. Staff responded to concerns raised by parents about the late hour by freeing up an earlier slot – from 3-6:30 p.m. – but only on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Commissioners’ Discussion on Mack Pool
In response to a query from Dave Barrett, Smith said that the school system is not under any obligation to pay the city, based on the 1974 agreement. Even so, AAPS does pay a portion of the operating costs, he said, including water and janitorial service. Terms of the new deal weren’t disclosed – it hasn’t been finalized.
Tim Berla noted that personnel costs were the biggest expense, yet there were no recommendations for cuts in staff. Staff costs account for about 60% of the Mack Pool budget, Smith said, but they had trimmed down over the years and didn’t think they could go any lower without affecting safety and customer service. There are always two lifeguards on duty, and one other staff member in the office collecting fees, among other things.
Scott Rosencrans, PAC’s chair who also serves on the Mack Pool task force, said he can’t recall any success story that involved reducing customer service. He also noted that USA Swimming recommends having two lifeguards at all times.
Berla said he thought the task force would also address the possibility of Mack Pool closing, and what would happen to the programming if it did. But these recommendations were just about raising revenues and cutting expenses. Smith said the task force was following its charge from the city council. If at some point the council gave them different directions, they’d address those questions.
Dave Barrett asked whether Smith was prospecting for swim schools. Smith responded by saying he was calling people asking if they wanted to visit the pool to see if they could use it as a swim school. Sam Offen said he was more concerned about Mack compared to the senior center, because there’s a larger gap in funding – getting revenue from a swim school was crucial, it seemed to him.
Rosencrans agreed, saying the key to Mack’s viability was getting more people to use it. Given the lack of public pools, he said he didn’t understand why it wasn’t mobbed. “I think it’s a real gem in the community.”
Berla said there were actually a lot of indoor pools, if you counted those at the public schools and the University of Michigan. But a building is just a means to an end, he said. It’s the programming that counts, and that’s where the discussion should focus. Given that the city is at the point where every dollar counts, programs should be the high priority.
Presentation: Senior Center Recommendations
The senior center faces a projected $151,687 deficit for fiscal 2010. The task force has identified $97,872 in savings and revenues, leaving roughly $52,000 that would still need to come out of the city’s general fund.
Smith said that in addition to three public meetings, about 600 people responded to a survey about the center and its services – those results were also factored in to these recommendations:
- Increase programming by adding new classes and other activities, including fitness classes, educational lectures and bridge games: $13,076
- Expand the trip program: $3,390
- Restructure agreements with instructors who teach courses at the center: $1,985
- Decrease the number of computers and applications: $4,000
- Reduce staffing levels for the lunch program by using volunteers: $3,078
- Reduce temporary staff time: $3,955
- Implement a membership fee: $12,500. Smith said that 68% of survey respondents said they’d be willing to pay a fee. The suggested annual fee is $25 per person, or $35 per household. There are funds available to offset costs for low-income residents, Smith said.
- Shift Friday and Sunday programming to other days, making the center available for rental: $5,555
- Increase the number of rentals: $6,500
- Increase fundraising: $3,500
- Increase advertising in the center’s newsletter: $3,000
- Use a portion of the Flinn bequest to help offset operating costs: $37,333
Smith also told commissioners that the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation has awarded a $16,949 grant to develop strategic plan for the center, and to help implement it over the next two years.
Commissioners’ Discussion of the Senior Center
Commissioner Sam Offen asked whether staff or the task force had talked to the Turner Senior Resource Center about partnering. Their Osher lecture series is popular, he noted, and there might be some opportunities to share expenses and programming. Jeff Straw, the city’s deputy parks manager, said staff had talked to representatives from Turner, who were concerned that they couldn’t accommodate additional groups. Offen suggested exploring partnerships with other senior centers in the area.
Offen also asked for more details about the community foundation grant. Smith said it needed to be spent by July 1, 2010. Commissioner Julie Grand, who serves on the senior center task force, said they’d held off using it because they didn’t yet know if city council would keep the center open.
Commissioner Tim Berla summarized the resolutions as an “atta boy!” for the work that’s been done so far, and support of continued efforts. Commissioner Gwen Nystuen said the results were encouraging, and she praised the amount of work that had been done by staff and the task forces.
Outcome: The commission unanimously approved both resolutions supporting the recommendations for the Mack Pool and Ann Arbor Senior Center task forces.
Colin Smith gave a brief quarterly financial report to commissioners. Halfway through the 2009 fiscal year, the parks and recreation operation is very close to its estimated net cost to the city’s general fund of $1.55 million.
He cited two areas that have lower-than-expected revenues to date: the Buhr Park and Veterans Memorial Park ice rinks. The rink at Buhr opened later than usual because of renovations there. At Vets, revenue from instructional skating is down about $25,000. They’ve seen gradual declines over the past few years, Smith said, but this year was lower than projected.
Revenues are up in some operations, Smith said, citing facilities rental and the senior center, which has seen an increase in donations.
Smith said he’d give PAC a report on canoe livery operations at next month’s meeting. If the headrace at Argo Dam remains de-watered, he said, that will affect revenues from canoe rentals this coming season. The city has a meeting scheduled with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality later this month to assess the dam, and it’s possible the state agency will allow the city to use the headrace again, Smith said. [The city has been in a multi-year dispute with MDEQ over the stability of Argo Dam, and whether to remove it. Most recent Chronicle coverage: "More to Meeting than Downtown Planning"]
Sam Offen and Gwen Nystuen, who serve on PAC’s financial subcommittee, both complimented Smith and Matt Warba, the city’s supervisor of field operations, for the fact that revenues were coming in close to their estimates. Offen said he was surprised by the drop in skating instruction, and that if the trend continues, the city will lose a valuable revenue stream. He said it was good to see an increase in golf revenues, but the big question was what will happen to golf operations in the coming budget cycle. Parks and recreation, along with all other departments, will be making budget recommendations in the coming months to address the city’s projected deficit.
Fuller Road Station
As she has at previous meetings, commissioner Gwen Nystuen raised the issue of defining the city’s “parkland” designation, in the context of the proposed Fuller Road Station. That project, a joint city/University of Michigan effort which initially includes a parking structure for about 1,000 vehicles, is located on city property that’s designated as parkland. It’s been leased to UM for several years and used as a surface parking lot.
[Chronicle coverage of the city council's Jan. 19, 2010 includes public commentary on the issue of parkland and the Fuller Road station, including a brief look at the city and state prohibitions against sale of parkland without a voter referendum.]
Building a parking structure on parkland “raises all kinds of questions and precedents that we should fully discuss,” Nystuen said. She requested that the topic be added to a future PAC agenda for discussion. PAC chair Scott Rosencrans suggested forming a task force or asking someone from the city attorney’s office to come to a meeting and brief the commissioners.
Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, said he asked to be included in the Fuller Road Station’s facilities planning committee, so that the parks perspective would be represented. The committee had recently met to talk about the impact of construction. He also has asked that the project leaders give PAC an update, possibly in March or May.
Nystuen asked Smith when he’d been consulted about the project. He reported that he’d first talked about it when Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, made a presentation to PAC in September 2009 about the project.
Commissioner Tim Berla voiced support for forming a task force, and for holding a public hearing on the issue. He said he could tell that Nystuen was serious and that there were members of the public who were very concerned as well. It was important to have a process to address those concerns.
Smith noted that neither of the city councilmembers were present, but said it would be good to get their perspective as well. [Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) are ex-officio members of PAC. Anglin was absent from the Jan. 19 meeting, and Taylor left to attend a city council budget committee meeting before this discussion took place.]
In his manager’s report, Colin Smith said that the Buhr Park ice rink had reopened on Jan. 9 after renovations that were made possible by the parks millage. He said it was a difficult project. The new refrigeration in the subfloor includes about 13 miles of pipes. [See Chronicle coverage of the Dec. 7, 2009 city council meeting when council approved additional money to rectify a problem with the pipe specification.]
Smith also reported that the city was trying to raise $25,000 from individuals and businesses for its scholarship fund. They awarded 800 scholarships last year, he said: “It’s one of the most important things that parks offers.” The donations are tax deductible.
Smith gave an update on the departure of his boss, Jayne Miller, the city’s community services director, whose last day with the city will be Feb. 11. She has taken a job as head of the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority, which oversees regional metroparks. He noted that she’s been with the city for 22 years, and previously held his job. Filling in on an interim basis will be Sumedh Bahl, who is head of the city’s water treatment plant. Smith quipped that he’d spent a lot of quality time with Bahl related to discussions about Argo Dam.
Finally, Smith said his staff had been working to prepare answers to several parks-related questions that councilmembers had asked during their December 2009 budget retreat. Sam Offen requested that PAC members also be provided with the information that staff gives to council – Smith agreed to do that.
In communications from commissioners, John Lawter said he’s championing the development of an urban dog park. He’s talked to park planner Amy Kuras about possibly using the property recently acquired by the city on Chapin, near West Park. She told him that one of the first steps would be to hold a neighborhood meeting about it, he said, adding that he also hoped to put the topic on an upcoming PAC agenda.
Present: John Lawter, Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen, David Barrett, Scott Rosencrans, Julie Grand, Doug Chapman, Karen Levin, Tim Berla, Christopher Taylor (ex-officio)
Absent: Mike Anglin (ex-officio)
Next meeting: Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 4 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St. [confirm date]