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Centennial Dog Park fundraiser kickoff

Owners walk their dogs during a fundraiser at Centennial Park on Oct. 13. City of Billings Parks, Recreation & Public Lands and the group Friends of Billings Dog Parks hosted the event to raise funds for Billings’ newest dog park at St. Johns and 32nd Street West.

There have been some recent concerns about funding for the maintenance and development of our parks. Specifically, some people have complained that the Heights is not receiving benefits for their share of parks funding. I’d like to share my view of how park maintenance projects are funded and, hopefully, a better way to address our disappointment.

The catalyst for the recent complaints was the Parks Department’s Capital Improvement Plan. The CIP is a list of anticipated capital projects over the next five years. The park CIP changes frequently because of harsh winters and other unanticipated events (e.g., arson at Rose Park pool).

The parks projects on the CIP are primarily funded through Park District 1, which was approved by council in 2012 to maintain and develop our community’s parks. You pay the PD1 assessment either directly on your property tax bill or indirectly as part of your rent.

Over the past seven years, PD1 funds have been used to “maintain what we have” (as opposed to developing new amenities). Among other things, we’ve replaced the slides and rebuilt the pool house at Rose Park, replaced playground equipment at parks from Pioneer to Hawthorne, replaced tennis courts at Pioneer and Castle Rock, and installed safety surfaces at every playground in the city.

The projects included on the latest CIP include irrigation systems, maintenance facilities, spray ground replacements, playground replacements, road and parking lot repairs, and the bathroom and parking lot replacements at Centennial Park.

Besides the maintenance facility, none of the current CIP projects funded by PD1 directly impact the parks in the Heights. It is easy to look at the list and feel like the Heights is being ignored. You may feel the same way if you live west of Shiloh Road.

More transparency

But about 1/3 of our PD1 assessment also funds a volunteer coordinator, an arborist, seasonal staff to manage restrooms in the parks, and a weed control program. In this way, PD1 benefits every citizen and every park in the city.

Our current level of PD1 funding is enough for only the most pressing issues each year. Projects are evaluated each year based on factors such as urgency, safety, compliance, public input, and efficiencies.

Personally, I want my assessment being put to use on the most urgent projects around the city regardless of where they are located. The draft CIP might not be the optimal list, and constructive public input helps address its shortcomings. But knowing the factors that were used to develop the list does give me some comfort that the projects were prioritized for the right reasons.

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It’s my opinion that the Parks Department process for prioritizing PD1 funded projects has not been as open and transparent as it should be. A recent conversation with City Administrator Chris Kukulski leaves me optimistic that we will see improvements in this area soon. The Parks Board looks forward to participating in a much more transparent CIP process next year, and I encourage you to get involved as well.

Paying for parks

But I think the real frustration is with the many parks that are currently undeveloped or under-developed. Heights residents see work starting at Centennial and wonder why Castle Rock is only partially finished. Or why the parking lots at Clevenger and Arrowhead can’t get paved.

The Parks Board has been encouraging the City Council to tackle these, and many other, development projects. We have proposed to increase the PD1 assessment in order to target projects that develop, not just maintain, our great parks. Longstanding opportunities around the city can start to be addressed for about $15 each (the additional assessment on a $200,000 house).

Re-allocating PD1 funds from maintenance to new development is just digging a deeper hole. We will have to find the funds to tackle our park development projects without reducing money that maintains what we have. General fund reserves, bonds, mill levies and Park District 1 are our only viable options, and there are pros and cons to each. I encourage you to contact your council representatives to support ongoing parks development.

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Tom Rupsis chairs the Parks, Recreation and Cemetery Board. The next meeting of this volunteer board is set for 11 a.m. on Wednesday, April 17 at Parks and Rec office, Fourth Avenue North and North 23rd St. All board meetings are open to the public.

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