Commissioner Rader Update

From Commissioner Jeff Rader:

Master Plan Provides Guidance for Parks and Recreation

This month, a new director, Roy Wilson, takes the helm of DeKalb County's Parks and Recreation department. The hope is that the new director, like the New Year, marks the beginning of a new era for the department.

But a new face in the same place by itself does not ensure a new direction. Rather, personnel change needs to be supplemented by a forward-looking strategy for the department that fulfills the county's goals in line with the department's resources.

That strategy is already on the table thanks to the completion of a new 10-year master plan for the county's parks and recreation department. A 408-page comprehensive plan was presented this summer by an outside firm hired by the county.

Perhaps the best feature of the master plan is that it provides objective and quantifiable measurements of the county's assets for parks and recreation. It also establishes baseline standards for quantity and quality of current and future assets. (Links to the report are at end of this update.)

The report recommends the county strive to have 18 acres of green space per 1,000 citizens. Based on the county's population, that goal amounts to almost 13,000 acres of parkland, but the county currently has less than 6,000 acres. By that same benchmark, District Two would have about 2,500 acres of parkland, but currently it has about 400 acres.

District Two not only is badly lacking in green space, it also is woefully inadequate compared to other county districts. Based on the report's inventory listing, the approximate breakdown by district is as follows (in descending order): District Five, 3510 acres; District Three, 1005 acres, District Four, 751 acres, District One, 598 acres, and District Two, 362 acres.

The report's inventory listing, analysis and recommendations do not factor in the 3,200-acre Stone Mountain Park. While Stone Mountain is a regional attraction, it certainly is a fantastic, versatile and convenient amenity for residents on the east side of DeKalb County. Thus, the report gives the impression that parts of the county are park-poor when in fact they are park-rich.

The inventory analysis underscores the lack of green space in Central DeKalb and other parts of the county. This finding needs to inform future green space acquisitions by the county.

That approach is reflected in a report this fall from the county's Parks Bond and Greenspace Office. The report provides its own analysis and recommendations of how the county should spend its remaining money from the 2001 and 2005 bond issues. (A link to the report is at the end of this update.)

Those two bonds provided the county with a total of $121 million for parks and green space. As of October 2009, there was almost $37 million remaining in that pot of money.

The greenspace office report recommends the county "Focus land acquisition in underserved areas based on population density and expand existing parks within these areas." The report identifies Districts 1, 2 and 4 as underserved areas. The report cites numbers from the parks master plan showing that District Two has roughly 15 percent of the county's population, but only about five percent of its parkland and green space.

Four areas in the county are cited as "especially deficient," two of them in District Two. One is Lawrenceville Highway north to I-85, and the other is I-85 north to Peachtree Industrial.

The parks master plan recommends the county strive to have one recreation center per 70,000 citizens. The county barely meets that standard with its 10 recreation centers. District Two, based on its population, should have two recreation centers. The report lists three centers in District Two -- Ashford, Briarwood and Mason Mill.

However, the report also states that recreation centers shall be at least 50,000-square feet in size. None of the three centers listed in District Two meet that size requirement.

Ashford Park is a small community meeting room with a warming kitchen and bathrooms. Briarwood Recreation Center, built more than 40 years ago, has less than 10,000 square feet. The Mack Love Center at Mason Mill has meeting rooms and a kitchen, but no active recreation facilities.

Further, the report states that Briarwood and Mason Mill do not have adequate space and equipment to fulfill their programming needs.

Meanwhile, the county is proceeding with construction of new recreational centers in District Three, Four and Five, thanks to money from the county's 2005 bond program. The program set aside roughly $5 million for the Exchange Recreation Center, $6 million for the Redan Recreation, and $6 million for the Wade Walker Recreational Center, which is being supplemented by $12 million from the county development authority. Those three centers in the pipeline are not listed or factored into the proposed master plan.

From the 2005 bond program, District Two has $2 million for renovations at Mason Mill Park, but no money for construction of a new center. [District One was allotted $11.5 million for improvements at Brook Run Park.]

By all objective measurements, there is an underserved need in District Two. By generally accepted standards, the area does not have the same recreation opportunities as other parts of the county. The county needs to use its resources to correct these deficiencies.

Among the recommendations is a formal park classification system based primarily on land size. The proposed classifications are mini-parks (one-tenth acre per 1,000 citizens), neighborhood parks (1 acre per 1,000), community parks (5 acres), and regional parks (5 acres). Specialty parks could alternatively be classified as nature parks or special purpose parks.

The use of classifications helps identify the purpose and audience for each park. That in turn can inform the county in its planning and maintenance for the respective parks.

A standard of care should be developed, the report says, as a guideline for maintenance of all parks. Once in place, the department needs to determine if it has the resources to maintain such standards.

Funds for ongoing maintenance, according to the report, have been compromised in favor of land acquisitions and capital improvements. While the latter two are relevant, it is important that adequate funding be dedicated to maintenance. Otherwise, the county ends up with a plethora of sub-standard facilities, thus limiting the county's ability to fulfill programming and recreational needs.

In the county's 2000 master plan for parks and recreation, the report estimated that $260 million was needed in capital improvements to bring all county recreation facilities up to par. The following year, the county issued a $125 million parks bond program of which $87 million was allocated for green space purchases.

Further, the county needs to budget for long-term maintenance obligations (aka lifecycle costs) of proposed new facilities. This lack of long-term budget planning is a topic I've touched upon many times, notably during my commentary on the county's 2009 budget (see link below).

Another recommendation is that basic maintenance functions be brought back in-house, reversing a previous decision to place it under the county-wide facilities management department. Further, the county should evaluate the cost benefits of outsourcing selected maintenance functions. Outsourcing is a topic discussed in my commentary on the size of the county's work force (see link below).

The parks and recreation department has an operating budget of approximately $23 million of which $13 million is designated for wages and benefits. With that budget, one that is likely to be further constrained by the current economy, the report encourages the department to develop self-sustaining economic models.

There are several ways that model can be achieved, the report says. Two of them are establishing user fees consistent with the market rate, and developing private-public partnerships. This is why it is important for the county to properly calibrate its existing relationships with private management companies who operate some of the county's recreational facilities. For details, see "Management Contracts" in my November digest (see link below).

Another partnership that needs to be further developed is with the county school system, which also invests in recreational facilities. It seems logical for such facilities to be used by the schools during the day and by the general public after school and on weekends. The county could maximize its resources by having its parks department and school system share the cost of construction and maintenance.

The final recommendation in the executive summary is to treat the master plan as a living document, one to be reviewed and updated regularly, so that it can adapt to real-world circumstances. In order to give gravitas to the report, its authors suggest submitting it to the Board of Commissioners for formal adoption.

To date, no such motion has come forth from the parks and recreation department. Hopefully, the new director will quickly follow through with this step to symbolize a new direction for the department.

As a whole, the report is a reminder that the county is behind the curve. It is a blueprint for management to help align the department's performance with current generally accepted practices.

Green Space Acquisition Report (October 2009)

Parks & Recreation Master Plan (Executive Summary)
Note: Large File Size: 7 MB

Parks & Recreation Master Plan (Entire Plan)
Note: Large File Size: 20 MB

(Commissioner Jeff Rader represents District Two on DeKalb County's Board of Commissioners. He was elected to the position in 2006 for a four-year term.)

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