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Some major upgrades are in store for Billings parks, but a lot of decisions still have to be made before it’s known where and when those improvements will be made.

Members of the City Council and the Park Board, plus a few Parks Department staffers, devoted three hours to a discussion of funding priorities during an informal council work session Monday night.

Based on everything they heard Monday, members of the Park Board are now supposed to fine-tune the spending recommendations they presented to the council late last year and get the new recommendations to the council for its March 5 work session.

At that meeting, City Administrator Tina Volek said, council members will have another discussion about priorities and then individually rank the recommended projects.

Those numbers will be crunched and a final list given to the council at its March 19 work session. At some later date, the council will have a public hearing and take a formal vote on setting assessments for the first year of the newly created citywide park district. Those initial assessments would appear on tax statements that go out next November.

Amid considerable public criticism but also a fair amount of public support, the council voted in December to use a state law passed in 2009 to create the park district as a means of dealing with deferred maintenance needs in city parks that total $9 million.

The Park Board recommended spending $2 million a year for the first three years — $500,000 a year for continuing maintenance, including a couple of new hires, and $1.5 million for capital projects, such as replacing water slides at Rose Park and rebuilding tennis courts.

Rick DeVore, who represented the Park Board at the meeting Monday night, said the board relied on a variety of sources in identifying funding priorities.

Those included the city’s capital improvement plan, which lays out possible capital projects for years in advance; a citywide needs assessment conducted in 2009; a formal management plan for the city’s trail system; master plans for Pioneer and Riverfront parks; and meetings with user groups.

DeVore said those user groups represented people involved in baseball, softball, disc golf, tennis, football and soccer, among other activities.

With a list of deferred maintenance projects in hand, the board then began ranking them based on five considerations: Priority 1, safety, health and welfare; 2, preventing closures and removals; 3, state and federal requirements, such as projects involving compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; 4, survey responses and other public input; and 5, efficiency savings.

Based on those criteria, the board recommended these first-year projects: Rose Park water slide replacement, $300,000; South Park, new playground, $180,000; new tennis courts at Castle Rock Park, $275,000; batting cage equipment at Stewart Park, $50,000; emergency and general maintenance, including repairs to roofs and irrigation systems, $248,500; and renovating or replacing nine of the most dilapidated park restrooms, $450,000.

That comes to just over $1.5 million. The board also recommended just under $500,000 for ongoing maintenance and operations, an assessment that would remain the same for the first three years of the district.

Those costs include $94,000 for trail maintenance, including hiring someone to coordinate volunteers and conduct trail inspections and some maintenance; $90,000 for better park maintenance, including two new workers; $15,000 to keep park restrooms open three months longer each year; $245,000 for weed management in the larger parks; and $52,500 to replace 75 of the old wooden picnic tables.

DeVore said the No. 1 need identified in the 2009 citizen survey was more picnic tables in the parks. The city had repaired and repainted some of the old tables so many times that it was finally considered a waste of time and money to keep doing so.

As a result, DeVore said, the city has lost 150 of the 400 tables it had in 2008. The Park Board recommended replacing all of them with new aluminum tables.

Whatever the council decides to do, DeVore said, it will probably have to limit annual assessments to $2 million, since that was the number used during discussion of creating the citywide district, and the number on which projected increases in property taxes were based.

If the assessment were set at $2 million, it would add $32 to the property tax statement on a $200,000 house.

The City Council and the Park Board have other considerations to attend to. The council, as part of its deliberations on the new park district, talked about doing something to alleviate the burden on property owners who already live within park maintenance districts.

Those PMDs support smaller, generally neighborhood parks. Some council members have talked about possibly phasing out those PMDs or somehow folding them into the citywide park district.

DeVore said the Park Board is in the process of creating a subcommittee to recommend what to do with existing PMDs. It is forming another subcommittee to look into the sale of unused parkland, in hopes of using money from any sales to reduce future park district assessments.

Also, he said, the board wants to create a public information subcommittee to keep the community updated on park district projects, and to provide the council with quarterly reports.

There were some questions Monday night about how the Parks Department got so deep in the hole, and why money wasn’t set aside for maintenance projects over the years.

Volek said Tuesday that the department does have some money-making activities, but revenues are always needed to keep the department budget in the black.

In the current budget year, she said, revenues — which include PMD assessments and proceeds from the Rose Park water slide and Stewart Park batting cages — are projected at $970,446. But the total department budget is $4.1 million, so any revenue set aside for future expenses would have to be balanced with corresponding budget reductions.

“We have to return every dollar we can to the general fund, and we have done that,” she told the council Monday.

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