Council takes hard look at Parks & Rec management

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

While the Ridgecrest City Council faces tough cuts in virtually every department to close an estimated $1.3-million budget shortfall, the examination of the Parks and Recreation Department yielded critical questions of whether those resources were being responsibly managed.

Director Jim Ponek spent time in the hot seat justifying to the council his department’s continued use of projections that don’t materialize, cutting of programs that bring in revenue and apparent unwillingness to work with community volunteers who have come forward in hopes of preserving the recreational assets in the community.

“There is nothing left to cut in the Parks and Recreation budget,” said Ponek. “I don’t want to make a recommendation because I don’t want to cut anything.”

He did, however, propose some $220,000 in cuts that include browning-out medians, ending the county lease for LeRoy Jackson Sports Complex, no longer maintaining the Kerr McGee Youth Sports Complex and one half-time employee.

He showed the council photos that showed city facilities in a deteriorated condition and blamed staff reductions for the present state. However, former Councilman Jerry Taylor circulated a graph to city officials that showed that maintenance staff is currently at a comparable level to the 2004-06 budget cycles — when the city was also maintaining more parkland.

Members of the council questioned Ponek on the logic behind some of the cuts, including closing the preschool on Mondays, laying off the recreation coordinator and extending the length (thereby reducing the number of availability) of spots for swimming lessons. Based on budget information released by the city, each of these has yielded a greatly reduced revenue stream.

“What I have a problem with is you never show any correlation between revenue and expense,” said Vice Mayor Chip Holloway. “We never know what the impact of your cuts are going to be.

“You end up cutting things that reduce more revenue than the expense you save.”

Among Ponek’s proposals for cost-saving measures is letting go of the city’s current lease of LeRoy Jackson Park athletic fields, in which the city runs youth sports programs. Since the county does not run recreation programs, those would simply be eliminated.

He has said that the city can convert Freedom Park to accommodate ball fields.

But several pointed out that only means spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more to recreate the facilities that already exist on county-leased property.

During an early part of the budget workshop, Burroughs High School Swim Coach Brian Williams brought the members of the team to council chambers. If Pinney Pool is closed, as Ponek has recommended, one of the local sports teams with one of the winningest records will cease to exist because there is no other public pool where members can practice and hold meets.

Councilwoman Lori Acton asked why Ponek’s program-generated revenue projections were considerably higher than what was realized. “I can see that might happen one year, but that happened year after year after year and you never adjusted it.”

She added that she wanted to see Parks and Recreation utilize more volunteers for programs from youth sports to median maintenance. See also related story, this page.

Story First Published: 2013-05-01