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Colorado Springs leaders want more money for Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services

December 26, 2017 Updated: December 27, 2017 at 1:37 pm
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Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services is struggling to maintain its parks and trails. Gazette file photo.

Colorado Springs leaders and outdoor activists are looking to boost next year's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services budget, which remains well below pre-recession levels.

The department is struggling to maintain its parks and trails, despite an increase of more than $1 million proposed for its 2018 budget, said Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails & Open Space Coalition. The proposed 2018 budget sits at about $15 million, well shy of the nearly $20 million budget a decade ago.

"At the last count, there were maybe 30 or 40 neighborhood parks with things like tennis courts or basketball courts," Davies said. "Those facilities are either padlocked at this point or barely usable. It costs money to resurface a tennis court; it costs money to replace the net on a basketball court."

Elsewhere, picnic tables are broken and pavilions falling apart, she said.

Karen Palus, parks director, said her department will receive $900,000 for new roofs on the City Auditorium and the Memorial Park Health and Fitness Facility, plus $200,000 to cover this year's deficit in water costs, if the City Council approves the proposed budget.

The roof replacements are important, Palus said, but "significant deficits" remain for the department's operations and forestry division.

"Many of our existing facilities are not receiving the repair and renovation dollars they need to keep up with the number of users," Palus said. "We are hopeful that these will be given additional consideration next year."

The budget increase comes thanks to general fund money freed when voters approved a set of stormwater fees in November.Council President Richard Skorman said more money for parks wasn't available because the city is trying to catch up on police and firefighter staffing. Mayor John Suthers proposed hiring 20 officers and eight firefighters next year.

Parks already uses efficient watering devices, Skorman said, but he wants to see if Colorado Springs Utilities can discount those water rates next year.

"That could possibly save a couple million a year in parks," Skorman said.

Over the past several years, Utilities has invested $2 million in irrigation and water efficiency upgrades for parks, said Utilities spokeswoman Natalie Watts. Any decision on discounting rates lies with the Utilities board members, who also make up the City Council.

Extra money could be used to hire full- and part-time employees for the "strained" forestry division, Skorman said. In January 2016, hurricane-force winds uprooted trees, tore roofs off buildings and toppled dozens of vehicles throughout El Paso County, resulting in about 1,100 calls to the short-staffed parks department, he said.

And parks being vandalized need security cameras, Skorman said.

An extra $3 million a year to eventuallly come from an increased Comcast franchise fee could go to parks too, he said.

Palus said some of that money will allow parks to "provide a small crew for downtown parks and event sits," and to tend to city trees and spray weeds more often.

But the council won't discuss specifics until June or later on what to do with money from the franchise fees and the general fund, Skorman said.

"Once we get into a full year of stormwater and a full year of cable franchise money that is available to capture, then we may be able to increase the (parks) budget," he said.

Davies said she wants that budget to reach about $20 million within the next three years "just to keep our heads above water."

Labor, materials and employees are more expensive now than in 2008, she said. So even more money will be needed before the department can begin chipping away at its long list of unfunded projects.

Palus said her department has a backlog of about $200 million in unfunded projects, and new projects are on hold. John Venezia Community Park, the city's first new park since 2005, opened this summer, but only because of money freed by the closure of the Four Diamonds Sports Complex, she said.

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