Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission meeting (April 20, 2010): At Tuesday’s meeting, park commissioners gave their blessing to proposed fee increases and the parks budget for FY 2011, recommending that city council approve both items.
The proposed budget would keep all of the city’s 157 parks open, but would cut back maintenance – mowing and snow removal – on 17 parks. The budget also proposes keeping open Mack Pool and the Ann Arbor Senior Center, which had previously been slated to close. A handful of supporters for those two groups who attended Tuesday’s meeting applauded when commissioners approved the budget.
Only one commissioner – Gwen Nystuen – voted against recommending the budget, citing objections to a proposed rollback of funds for the city’s Natural Area Preservation (NAP) program.
Nystuen also floated a proposal to form a subcommittee that would review the impact of the Fuller Road Station. That project, which is jointly funded by the city and the University of Michigan, would initially include a large parking structure and bus station on city-owned land that’s designated as parkland. Nystuen has been vocal about her concerns over setting a precedent with this project, and frustrated that PAC hasn’t taken a more active role on the issue.
Commissioners also got a brief update on the status of an RFP being drafted by city staff for the possible privatization of the Huron Hills Golf Course, and heard from an organizer of the Ann Arbor skatepark during public commentary, who invited commissioners to an April 25 design workshop.
Recommendations for Fee Increases Approved
Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution recommending that city council approve a raft of fee increases within the parks system. Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, described this as a standard part of the budget process. The 19 pages of proposed fee changes were provided in the PAC board packet and are part of the budget material being considered by city council. The information includes comparative data on fees charged by other municipalities. [.pdf file of proposed fee increases]
If approved by council, hourly rental rates at the city’s ice arenas will be raised, as will season passes at outdoor pools and at Fuller Pool for the master’s swim program. Smith noted that rental fees at Veterans ice arena haven’t been raised since 2005, or at Buhr since 2007. Both arenas have received capital improvements in the past few years. Rates at Buhr for multiple prime-time hourly rentals would increase from $150 to $165 for residents. Veterans rates would jump from $186 to $205. By comparison, the Ann Arbor Ice Cube charges $275 an hour.
Outdoor pool passes haven’t been raised since 2006. Adult residents will be charged $140 for a season pass, up from $125. Youth and senior resident rates would increase from $100 to $110.
For canoe rentals, the parks staff is proposing a new $10 third-person fee, which Smith described as an industry standard. The new fee would not be charged to children 12 and under.
Several new fees, as well as some double-digit fee increases, are recommended for Mack Pool and the Ann Arbor Senior Center. Smith noted that these fees were approved by the task forces that have been working to save the pool and senior center, which had previously been slated to close. The senior center, for example, will start charging an annual membership fee – $25 for individuals, $35 for couples.
Commissioner Gwen Nystuen thanked Smith and the parks staff, saying they had achieved a balance between charging fees that reflect the current financial needs, but not so high that it would be a burden and prevent people from using the parks facilities. “We appreciate the effort,” she said.
Sam Offen, who chairs PAC’s finance committee, agreed. He said the fees were fair, very competitive and appropriate, since they hadn’t been raised in several years.
Commissioners unanimously approved the new rates. City council will make a final decision on the changes, as part of its approval of the FY 2011 budget. If approved, the new rates would take affect at various points throughout the year – Smith said they didn’t want to change rates mid-season.
Fiscal 2011 Parks Budget
Colin Smith, who manages the city’s parks and recreation unit, gave a presentation to commissioners outlining highlights of the budget for fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1. He noted that this will be the second year of a two-year financial plan, which was adopted in May 2009. Typically there would be only minor adjustments in the second year, he said. “That is basically not the case this year.”
The budget process hasn’t really stopped, because of uncertain economic conditions, Smith said. Last year, the city administration revised its FY 2010 budget forecast to reflect a $3.3 million revenue decrease. For FY 2011, an additional $5.4 million revenue drop is projected for the general fund.
To address the FY 2010 decrease, the parks system – as well as other units funded by the city’s general fund – cut its budget by 3%. Measures included extending the mowing cycle from 14 to 19 days, reducing the amount of hand-trimming, and shifting the expense of stump removal and tree planting to the city’s stormwater fund. The parks unit also realized $28,000 in energy savings during the year, Smith said, and the golf courses outperformed their forecast, requiring less of a subsidy from the general fund.
For the coming fiscal year, another 7.5% budget cut is needed, Smith said. For parks and recreation, that’s an additional $262,000 cut; for parks forestry and operations, it’s a $272,000 cut.
To reach those goals, Smith outlined several proposed cuts:
- $55,000 in staff costs, by leaving vacancies unfilled and reallocating some staff time to other units;
- $40,000 by using a Community Development Block Grant to pay part of the $145,000 contract with the Community Action Network to run the Bryant Community Center;
- $35,000 from reductions in computers and software applications;
- $15,000 from cuts to the seasonal employee budget;
- $14,000 from shifting advertising from print to the web;
- $12,500 from buying fewer canoes and kayaks;
- $7,000 in energy savings.
Those cuts will be coupled with revenue increases in several areas, including rink rental ($24,000), outdoor swimming passes ($10,000), third-person canoe fees ($25,000), athletic field rates ($25,000) among other areas. Additional parking revenue is expected from leasing spaces to the University of Michigan at Riverside Park ($10,000) and from charging for parking at Allmendinger and Frisinger parks on football Saturdays ($25,000).
Mack Pool and the Ann Arbor Senior Center are still expected to operate at a loss – $21,000 and $31,000, respectively – but those are lower amounts than originally projected, Smith said. The budget also projects a $28,000 drop in revenue from instructional skating, he said.
A job that’s currently vacant for a park planner will be retooled as a volunteer outreach coordinator, Smith said. And as the staff prioritizes capital improvements, they’ll look for projects that will cuts costs, such as ones that increase energy efficiency, for example.
Additional changes will be made to the parks forestry and operations unit:
- $112,000 saved by extending the mowing cycle from 19 to 23 days;
- $142,000 from shifting the cost of stump removal and tree planning to the stormwater fund;
- $52,000 from eliminating maintenance (except for right-of-way) in 15 parks..
[Later in the meeting, Matt Warba, the city's supervisor of field operations, clarified that 17 parks would be experiencing some level of reduced maintenance. They are: Ellsworth, Foxfire East, Fuller Triangle, Garden Homes, George Washington Park, Glazier Way, Manchester Park, Pittsview Park, Rose White Park, South University Park, Bader Park, Stone School Park, Berhshire Berkshire Creek Nature Area, Devonshire Park, Dicken Park, Douglas Park, Eisenhower Park.]
In addition, the proposal calls for eliminating a 3% annual automatic increase in the budget for the Natural Area Preservation program, which is funded by a parks maintenance and capital improvements millage passed in 2006. That would yield $81,000, which would be used instead to pay for hand trimming in the parks. Because the 3% increase is mandated by a city council ordinance, the change would require council action, Smith said.
Public Commentary: Parks Budget
At the start of the meeting, one of the two speakers during public commentary focused on the budget. Ed Sketch, a member of the task force formed to help save Mack Pool, said he was pleased with the work that the task force had done to help reduce the deficit. He welcomed the fact that funding remained in the budget for Mack Pool, and urged the commission to support that aspect of the proposed FY 2011 budget.
Commissioner Discussion: Mowing & Maintenance
Gwen Nystuen asked for more clarification about park maintenance. Matt Warba, the city’s supervisor of field operations, said the weather would affect the impact of the mowing changes. If it’s a dry season, the changes won’t be as noticeable. But if it’s warm and wet, causing the grass to grow quickly, people will likely notice the difference. Their intention is to mow all the areas they can, he said. During the winter, they also put wood chips around the trees, to reduce the impact of cutbacks in hand trimming. If there are playground areas, those will be maintained, Warba said.
For the parks in which maintenance will be eliminated, Warba said there isn’t any recreational programming planned. And they’ll keep the right-of-way clear and won’t let weeds grow so high as to violate the city’s weed ordinance, he said. If they need to make adjustments during the season, they will, he said.
In a follow-up email to The Chronicle, Warba wrote that nine of the 17 parks will have some level of snow removal on paths reduced, and most will have a reduction in mowing. Birkshire Creek Nature Area will have a reduction in snow removal only, because the parks staff does not currently mow there.
David Barrett asked whether the city was protected legally, if someone slipped and fell because snow hadn’t been removed from the park path. Warba said they would post notices indicating that the paths won’t be maintained – they already do this in Mary Beth Doyle Park, he said. If they plow, Warba said they feel obligated to keep the paths ice-free. But if the area is clearly posted with signs informing the public that the paths won’t be plowed, the city should be covered. Christopher Taylor clarified with Warba that this would affect only internal park paths, not sidewalks around the perimeter.
Commissioner Discussion: Natural Area Preservation
Scott Rosencrans asked how the cuts to the Natural Area Preservation program (NAP) would affect its work. When Tim Berla commented that it wasn’t really a cut – it was simply not an increase – Sam Offen clarified that it was, in fact, a cut of more than 3%. The proposal called for rolling back the 3% increases NAP has received each year since the parks maintenance and capital improvements millage was passed, so it’s actually a 12% budget reduction, he said, taking them back to their 2007 budget level of about $695,000
The impact includes a 44% reduction in the budget for temporary staffing. Warba noted that rather than using Manpower for temp staff, NAP will be hiring temporary employees directly – that means that they won’t be paying Manpower’s administrative markup, so they’ll be getting more bang for their buck, he said. Because of that, Warba estimated the reduction in actual temp staff levels would be more like 30%.
Gwen Nystuen said it was important to note that revenue from the millage was declining, due to lower property taxes from the struggling economy. Her concern was about taking funds from NAP and shifting them to operations – when the millage was passed, this was something that city officials had vowed not to do.
The shift is predicated on two actions that must be taken by city council, Offen said. First, they’ll need to revoke the automatic 3% budget increase to NAP, he said. They’ll also need to approve the use of millage funds to be used for operations – namely, hand trimming in the parks. The city council has been informed that it will need to take those actions, he said.
Smith said that when the millage was passed, the expectation was that the city would be acquiring more land for its natural areas program. The 3% increase for NAP was tied to that, he said, to cover costs tied to caring for the additional land. [Land acquisition is funded by through the open space and parkland preservation millage, which also funds the city's greenbelt program.] Smith noted that out of the roughly 1,200 acres of city-owned natural areas purchased so far, only 38 acres have been purchased with millage funds are natural areas. That’s less than 3% annually, he said, so it’s fair to say that rolling back the budget shouldn’t dramatically affect NAP’s ability to maintain the city’s natural areas.
Nystuen said that it would affect NAP’s ability to do some innovative things that they might like to do.
Later in the meeting, Tim Berla brought up the fact that several years ago, residents had been dissatisfied with upkeep of the parks system. A big selling point of the 2006 millage had been to get the city back up to an acceptable level. He wondered whether they were going to slide back, because of the cuts.
Smith said that one thing they heard from residents when they proposed the 2006 millage was that people wanted the city to take care of existing parks. The city has done a good job of that, he said, upgrading several facilities over the years. The fact that they’ll be keeping all the parks and recreation facilities open, despite budget cuts, speaks well for that commitment, he said. Smith also pointed to Mack Pool and the Ann Arbor Senior Center, which are being kept open as well.
The most visible thing that people will notice is longer grass, he said, and some people won’t like it. In general, the situation with the parks boiled down to this, he said: “We can still play in them – it really is, in some ways, that simple.”
Commissioner Discussion: Misc. Comments and Questions
David Barrett wondered how all of these changes would be communicated to the public – assuming that everyone wasn’t going to be watching the Community Television Network broadcast in the wee hours of the morning, he joked.
Colin Smith said that after the city council approves the budget, he planned to put information up on the city’s website and post notices at parks facilities. He also will send out an email through the city’s email alert system, which reaches about 35,000 people, he said.
Gwen Nystuen asked whether Smith felt comfortable with the amount of revenue the city was getting from the University of Michigan for leasing parking spaces at Riverside Park. He said that getting $12,000 annually for 10 spaces was market rate, and that the spots were used at off-peak hours.
Karen Levin asked for clarification about the projected decrease in revenue from skating instruction. The budget projection for FY 2010 had been too aggressive, Smith said. In general, enrollment is declining. It’s still a large program, he said, and staff will work to get the numbers back up. But they felt that to reflect reality, they needed to adjust the revenue forecast downward.
Nystuen commented that since Smith stepped into the manager’s job, budget forecasting has improved dramatically.
Tim Berla raised the issue of the new volunteer coordinator position. It’s important to monitor it over time and set specific goals and expectations, he said. Smith clarified that it would be a full-time position funded by the millage, not the general fund. It would replace a currently unfilled park planner job. Next week he and deputy parks and recreation manager Jeff Straw will meet with Jason Frenzel, who handles volunteer outreach for the Natural Area Preservation program, to create the job description and talk about how to measure success. NAP does things like track volunteer hours and opportunities for educational interaction with volunteers, Smith said. He cautioned that developing a volunteer program takes time.
Offen asked when they planned to fill the position. Smith said he couldn’t post the job until the city council approved the budget – they’re expected to vote on that in May. He said he wanted to make sure they found the right person for the job, which might lengthen the hiring process.
Berla also asked whether the closing of the headrace at Argo Dam had been factored in to projected revenues for the Argo Livery. At this point, it’s not possible to take the river trip between Argo and Gallup parks, he noted.
Smith said the operating budget assumes that the headrace will be open again, but that they also have a contingency fund to make up for a shortfall if it doesn’t reopen. Berla jokingly referred to it as a slush fund – Smith said it’s called a contingency.
In a follow-up phone call with The Chronicle, Smith said the contingency of $66,086 is an estimate of about half of the projected revenues for Argo’s spring 2011 season, through June 30, 2011. It could be tapped if the headrace remains closed, either because of repairs to the Argo Dam or if the city doesn’t receive permission from the state to remove the stop log, which is currently in place.
A long-running dispute between the city and the state over the stability of Argo Dam resulted in the headrace being closed last year. The headrace is a passage that’s used by canoers and kayakers to bypass the dam as they travel on the Huron River.
Commissioner Discussion: Proposed Amendment and Vote
Gwen Nystuen said she supported everything except the rollback of NAP funding, because it breaks with the resolution that city council passed regarding the allocation of millage funds.
Offen objected, saying that if they kept the increase for NAP, they’d have to go back and change the budget, which used those funds to pay for hand trimming.
Christopher Taylor, an ex officio PAC member who represents Ward 3 on city council, said that PAC was simply giving advice to council – it wasn’t PAC’s budget to alter, he said. By removing support for the NAP rollback, he said, PAC would simply be removing its imprimatur from that portion of the budget. Responding to a question from David Barrett, Taylor said that council had not yet taken action regarding a change to NAP funding.
Tim Berla asked Nystuen to be more specific about her objections. She said the budget would be shifting funds away from NAP to be used for general maintenance, and she didn’t think it was worth making that sacrifice. It also breaks with what voters were told when they approved the millage. The council resolutions – which were passed in August 2006, before the November vote – were meant to assure voters that the millage funds would be used in certain ways, she said.
Berla said they couldn’t have anticipated how things would change, such as the amount of land they’d acquire and the downturn in the economy.
Scott Rosencrans asked how the parks would be impacted, if the $81,000 from the millage wasn’t reallocated for hand trimming. Matt Warba, the city’s supervisor of field operations, said there’d be no hand trimming in the parks, other than in response to the city’s weed ordinance. It would have a “monuental” visual impact, he said.
There was some discussion over how best to make the amendment that Nystuen suggested. Doug Chapman proposed adding a new resolved clause that would remove PAC’s support of the changes to NAP.
Saying he was a supporter of NAP’s work, Rosencrans said he wouldn’t support the amendment. At a time when other parts of parks and recreation are taking a hit, NAP needs to do its share. He noted that the staff at NAP had made the suggestions about how to cut their budget, and he thought it was a fair adjustment.
The amendment failed to pass, with only Nystuen voting for it.
Mike Anglin, a Ward 5 councilmember and ex officio member of PAC, asked when the parks millage would be up for renewal. Smith said there was another 2.5 years remaining on the six-year millage.
Outcome: The resolution to recommend the parks budget to city council passed, with dissent from Gwen Nystuen.
New Leadership for PAC
Tuesday was the last meeting for Scott Rosencrans, the commission’s chair, who has decided not to seek a second term on PAC, citing personal and professional reasons. He said he’s been honored to serve, and that the group had accomplished “a lot that we can be proud of.”
Gwen Nystuen nominated Julie Grand – the only commissioner who was absent on Tuesday, due to illness. Nystuen and several others assured Rosencrans that Grand had been consulted and had agreed to serve.
No others were nominated. Even so, the commissioners voted by secret ballot, writing their votes on slips of paper. Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, read the ballots, noting that only seven had been cast – Rosencrans had forgotten to weigh in. After Rosencrans handed over his vote, Smith revealed that Grand had been elected unanimously. John Lawter remains vice chair.
Rosencrans clarified that PAC’s bylaws require officer elections in September, so elections for all officers will be held again at that time.
Fuller Road Station
Toward the end of the meeting, Gwen Nystuen proposed a resolution to form a subcommittee that would focus on Fuller Road Station, a joint city of Ann Arbor/University of Michigan project. If approved by PAC, the subcommittee would review the environmental, financial, legal, operational and visual impacts of the project, as it relates to the city’s parks and recreation program, Fuller Park, and the Huron River valley.
In 1993, Nystuen noted, there were no surface parking lots in that area, other than those around the pool at Fuller Park. Today there are several lots, including those that are leased by UM. “What are we doing?” she asked. “This is awful.” Though the city’s stated goals are to develop parks along the Huron River, she said, “we seem to be filling the space up with a big parking lot.”
The Fuller Road Station, a structure which will have about 1,000 parking spaces but the capacity to eventually contain 1,700 spaces in eight levels, poses legal questions because it’s being proposed on city land that’s designated as parkland, Nystuen said. She also cited financial concerns about how the city would pay for its share of the project. Additionally, she wondered why alternative designs – like one shown at PAC’s March 16, 2010 meeting by architect Peter Pollack – weren’t being considered.
Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, has made two presentations to PAC, but Nystuen said commissioners just listen and ask questions – they’ve taken no action. It’s been brought to them as though it’s all done, she said. Her proposal for a subcommittee would allow PAC to take a more active role in evaluating the project’s impact on parks.
Nystuen proposed that commissioners read her resolution and then discuss it at an upcoming meeting of PAC’s land acquisition committee (LAC), on which all park commissioners serve. LAC next meets on May 4 from 4-6 p.m. in the second floor city council workroom. The meetings are open to the public, but are not televised.
Rosencrans deferred action to PAC’s next chair, saying “Commissioner Grand, if you’re watching at home, that’ll be one of your first orders of business.”
Huron Hills Golf Course RFP
At the end of the meeting, commissioner Sam Offen asked for an update on the RFP (request for proposals) that the city plans to issue for the Huron Hills Golf Course. The commission had received its most comprehensive update at its Feb. 23, 2010 meeting. From Chronicle coverage of that meeting:
Commissioner Julie Grand gave a report on the city’s golf advisory task force, on which she serves. The group met the previous week, she said, and had a heated discussion about the possible privatization of Huron Hills Golf Course. At this point, it’s just an idea, she said – no RFPs (requests for proposals) have been issued. [The RFP was discussed at city council meetings 0n Jan. 25 and Feb.8, 2010, and city administrator Roger Fraser indicated at the Febrary meeting that city staff will work on development of such an RFP.]
The task force has been directed to look for ways to get additional funding for Huron Hills, Grand said, and they hope to get clarification on a number of questions, such as how the city’s municipal service charges – fees paid by every department for shared services, such as information technology and legal services – factor into the budget.
Colin Smith added that the city has been approached by a private vendor interested in alternative uses for Huron Hills – splitting the course into a driving range and learning center on one side of Huron River Parkway, and a 9-hole course on the other. City staff will develop an RFP over the summer, he said, which will be put out for bids. There will then be a review process of the proposals submitted, including a look at proposed financial returns. “It is not a foregone conclusion, that’s for sure,” he said.
The RFP will likely be broad, Smith said, to allow for more creative proposals. Before being put out to bid, it would be reviewed by the task force as well as PAC. He likened it to the Library Lot process, in which the city issued an RFP for development on top of an underground parking structure. There would likely be a committee formed to review responses to the Huron Hills RFP, Smith said, and a lot of opportunity for people to know what’s going on.
On Tuesday, Smith told commissioners that city staff were still working on a draft of the RFP. When they had finished, it would be reviewed first by the city’s golf advisory task force to take advantage of their expertise and insight, he said. Then it would be brought to PAC for review and input, probably in June. The RFP would likely be issued this summer – Smith said he expected it would entail a process similar to the one being used for the Library Lot RFP, in which a committee is convened to review responses to the RFP.
Public Commentary: Skatepark
Trever Staples, a lead organizer for the effort to build a skatepark in Ann Arbor, gave an update to commissioners during public commentary at Tuesday’s meeting. He noted that the organizing group was now called Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark. They’ll be holding the second of two design workshops on Sunday, April 25. The event, which is open to the public, starts at 4 p.m. at Slauson Middle School, 1019 W. Washington.
Staples said PAC had been instrumental in moving the project forward, noting that the skatepark organizers had signed a memo of intent with the city to use land at Veterans Memorial Park almost two years ago. They’ve been meeting with park planner Amy Kuras and Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, to develop an RFP (request for proposals) for the skatepark’s design.
They’ve also been in fundraising mode, Staples said. He noted that last month, Washtenaw County’s parks and recreation commission had approved up to $400,000 in matching funds for the project. [See Chronicle coverage: "County Offers $400K Match for Skatepark"] Staples said city councilmember Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) was instrumental in putting together a letter of support for the county, signed by councilmembers. The skatepark group will hold its next fundraiser on May 15 at the Vault of Midnight, 219 S. Main St.
Staples thanked commissioners for their ongoing support. “We’ll come back with a more formal presentation soon,” he said.
Present: David Barrett, Tim Berla, Doug Chapman, John Lawter, Karen Levin, Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen, Scott Rosencrans, Mike Anglin (ex-officio), Christopher Taylor (ex-officio)
Absent: Julie Grand
Next meeting: Tuesday, May 18 at 4 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St. [confirm date]