Council members promised to fund parks backlog if levy was defeated but no plan in the works

Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 13, 2017

CINCINNATI – City Council has yet to propose a long-term funding solution to fix the parks system’s multi-million dollar maintenance backlog.

That was a promise a majority of members made as they urged voters to oppose a 2015 parks levy on the ballot, vowing instead that council could solve the issue without a new tax.

But more than a year later, the parks system’s estimated multi-million dollar repair issues continue to grow as Cincinnati Parks could face a tighter budget from the city for upgrades and repairs next year.

“You do the best you can,” Cincinnati Parks Director Willie Carden, who is retiring later this year from the job, said. “I’m not faulting the city – the city is trying to make due with the resources they have.”

Parks officials estimate they’ve fallen behind on maintenance repairs by nearly $60 million as of last year, according to documents provided to WCPO. Those unfunded needs have resulted in crumbling stairways, hazardous playground surfaces or park shelters in such disrepair that they’ve been closed down in some of the city’s parks.

Ideally, parks leaders would like $4 million every year to pay for their laundry list of city parks repairs.

Instead, the parks system typically gets about half of its request – or less – annually to fund expenses such as replacing playground sets or repaving walking trails.

This year, the city approved $2.4 million for parks maintenance. The city also provided another $1.5 million to match a time-sensitive federal grant award to the parks department for the construction of a boat marina at Smale Riverfront Park.

But next year, the department is facing a budget as small as $1.66 million for capital projects, a current city budget proposal shows. And, with the city facing a possible $7 million budget shortfall next year, parks funding is likely to take a lower priority against the needs of other departments, such as police and fire.

Parks funding fluctuates from year to year; in 2008, for example, the city gave parks $3.4 million. In 2014, funding dipped to $1.6 million.

City officials also allocate roughly $10 million every year to pay for the parks’ operational needs, but that only covers day-to-day needs such as workers’ salaries and keeping parks or trails up and running.

But capital funding is what the parks system relies on to make long-term upgrades or repairs, typically costing more than $5,000.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley’s proposal to charge an extra property tax to funnel to the parks system would have brought in an estimated additional $5.5 million annually to pay for parks repairs, but voters soundly defeated the plan.

Nearly two years later, the parks backlog that spurred his levy proposal is no closer to being solved, Cranley said.

“We’ll continue to chip away at the deferred maintenance. It will take years,” Cranley said in an interview with WCPO last month. “There’s not enough money to go around to get the parks back where they need to be.”

Several City Council members were vocally opposed to the parks tax, holding press conferences and sending out media releases questioning the need for the levy.

Just days before the election a coalition of council members, including Yvette Simpson, Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young, said they would find a way to fund more parks repairs if voters killed the levy at the polls. The city’s lucrative $8.3 million sale of the Blue Ash Airport land in 2015 was floated as an option. 

Cranley faults those council members for failing to come up with that alternative plan to fund the city’s park maintenance backlog.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I want more money for parks,’ but money doesn’t grow on trees. You got to find ways to pay for it,” Cranley said. “They sometimes pretend money grows on trees. It doesn’t.”

But Simpson, who is running for Cranley’s job as mayor, said the parks system has faced too much turmoil during the last year to sort out funding issues.

She points to an audit that found problems with oversight and accountability at the parks department. Then, late last year two Parks Board members unexpectedly resigned. Carden also announced his plans for retirements late last year.

The issues have also strained the parks board’s relationship with the city, she added.

“I don’t believe folks should keep the pressure off on this (funding) commitment, I just think, understand the dynamic has shifted,” Simpson said. “It’s really challenging for us to be able to allocate funding in a strategic way when the leadership of the department is shifting.”