Park and Rec director outlines reduction options

County commission hears local concerns, gives advice for surviving shrinking budgets

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Park and Rec director outlines reduction optionsAnticipation of cuts in virtually every department of the city of Ridgecrest prompted Parks and Recreation Director Jim Ponek to outline several options for reduction at last week’s meeting of the city’s Quality of Life Committee.

According to Ponek, the department has nearly $1.58 million from the general fund and brings in some $387,000 in revenue. He said the council has given direction to staff to prepare options for the elimination of some $200,000.

Ponek presented three options for reduction, each with an associated list of investments for $6 million in Tax Allocation Bonds the city hopes to retain from the now-defunct Ridgecrest Re-development Agency.

The three-part strategy of the first option would close Pinney Pool, take ownership of the county-owned LeRoy Jackson Park and turn over the Kerr McGee Youth Sports Complex to a local sports organization.

He said that if the city takes over Jackson Park, it can ask for $175,000 annually from the county for three to five years to maintain it. (The county has not committed to this.)

The other components of the plan mean that the city would no longer be paying for maintenance of those facilities.

The second option would also close the pool, cancel the current lease on the Jackson Sports Complex (the city-operated portion of the county park) and turn over operation of Kerr McGee fields to be shared by two youth sports associations.

A third option, which could be imposed in conjuction with either of the first plans, would add closure of Pearson or Upjohn parks.

Ponek also unveiled at this meeting a plan that would consolidate many of the city’s parks and recreation facilities as part of the LeRoy Jackson complex.

Ponek said that the city could build new fields and a pool that would incorporate soccer, football and softball facilities — along with current playgrounds and the new Jackson extension — in one district.

However, he noted that the city could not fund this project unless the county agreed to help pay the city for maintenance and the city could use the TAB funds to build the new facilities.

Subsequent interviews from meeting attendees showed residents split — with some excited about Ponek’s vision and others skeptical about whether the cash-strapped city could afford it.

That was followed up by a board session of the Kern County Parks and Recreation Commis-sion, which held a rare meeting in Ridgecrest.

County Parks and Rec Department Director Bob Lerude gave an update on the current expansion of Jackson Park. Phase I — which includes a picnic area, sheltered walking path, parking lot and xeriscaping — is on track for completion in April. Phase II — which includes a children’s play area instead of the previously announced outdoor amphitheater — does not yet have a timeline since it is currently unfunded.

Lerude, who also attended the city’s committee meeting, said that the county went through similar reductions several years ago. “We laid off all our extra help, eliminated all the vacant positions that were funded and laid off staff members. We did this three years in a row. Obviously, that impacted services.”

But the county did everything to mitigate the effects, he said, and leveraged this by partnering with community organizations.

He said that department staff approached groups and asked them to maintain facilities. “We told them as long as they kept them open to the public, we would not charge them rent.”

Ten facilities that otherwise would have closed were kept open this way, he said.

“I know the city is going through difficult times. What we can do is work collaboratively with the city. For example, if there are services we are both providing, maybe we can combine our efforts,” he said.

He also encouraged the city to explore creative employment alternatives, such as hiring CalWORKS participants, senior citizens and prisoners on work releases.

“This is challenging budget times. We all have to find ways to operate more efficiently.”

Story First Published: 2013-03-06