The Astoria Parks and Recreation Department will begin making large-scale cuts to programs next fiscal year, and may sell a park, because of a more than $100,000 budget shortfall.
Angela Cosby, the department director, and City Manager Brett Estes delivered the sobering, but not unexpected, news at a City Council work session Wednesday.
The department’s resources, including general fund transfers, have shrunk over multiple years while staff obligations — sites maintained, facilities managed, programs offered and services delivered — have steadily increased. This has resulted in overstretched employees, high staff turnover and pockets of parkland kept in less-than-perfect condition.
“Tough decisions have to be made,” Cosby said after the meeting, “but, when we look back, our subsidy is less than it was 17 years ago, and the department is currently receiving 7 percent of the general fund when it used to receive 12. We’ve been cutting and cutting and cutting away.”
Of four sites the parks department has considered selling, the one with the fewest deed restrictions is Birch Field and Park, a 0.96-acre site at Birch and 50th streets the department lists in poor condition with very low usage.
Based on what the department believes will impact the fewest people while saving the most money, she presented the council with recommendations on which programs to eliminate.
The first was the drop-in child care at the Astoria Recreation Center, and the CPR and first aid classes, then health-and-wellness programs, such as the Gobbler Gallop, Astoria Wellness Challenge and New Year’s Day Fun Run.
Special events at Port of Play — the Family Pumpkin Carving, Easter Egg Dyeing, Valentine’s Day Tea and Dr. Seuss Celebration Night — may also wind up on the chopping block.
Other free community and family-based events, such as the Easter Egg Hunt, Father/Daughter Valentine’s Day Dance, Monster Bash, Kids’ Day in the Park and Summer Movies in the Park may be retired.
Finally, Cosby recommended ending youth and adult athletics, a notion that made a few councilors recoil. “I wish I wasn’t proposing that, to be clear,” Cosby said.
The Aquatic Center, an expensive facility that nearly shut down during the Great Recession, may eventually have to close without additional revenue streams.
Meanwhile, the council is looking at a range of possible funding mechanisms to add revenue and boost the department’s long-term financial stability.
At a March work session, Cosby and park staff members advocated imposing a utility fee on energy customers. Though city councilors said the idea is worth exploring, the public’s reaction was mixed. “There was definitely some pushback from the community,” Cosby said.
A utility fee attached to city-controlled water and sewer rates, rather than to electric bills, is now one of several options under consideration.
• Business license and greenway fees
• A parks and recreation or cemetery taxing district
• A sales tax on prepared meals and beverages
• An operations levy
• A lodging tax increase
City Councilor Bruce Jones said he would support a strategy that shared the costs among both residents and visitors. “I like the idea of not having the burden be exclusively borne by Astorians — say, through a water-sewer fee exclusively,” he said.
City Councilor Zetty Nemlowill, a former member of the parks and recreation master plan citizens advisory group, said that, before the council considers increased funding, the city needs to create a more manageable parks system. She has advocated for selling underused parkland, such as Tidal Rock Park at Commercial and 15th streets.
Nemlowill said she would not entertain a food and beverage tax because the method does not relate directly to parks. In addition, she believes it would be unfair to foist a sales tax onto small business owners.
However, since Nemlowill works for the Astoria Co-op Grocery and her husband co-owns Fort George Brewery, it is unclear if she would have to recuse herself from a council vote on such a tax.
City Councilor Cindy Price said the council needs more data on each of these options before deciding which ones to pursue. “We can’t really talk about them without understanding what they might mean,” she said.
The City Council plans to soon discuss the parks budget further.