Jeff Rader, Dist. 2 commissioner – Guest Column

This month, a new director, Roy Wilson, takes the helm of DeKalb County’s Parks and Recreation department. The hope is that the new director, like the New Year, marks the beginning of a new era.
But a new face in the same place by itself does not ensure a new direction. Rather, personnel change needs to be supplemented by a forward-looking strategy for the department that fulfills the county’s goals in line with department resources.
That strategy is already on the table, thanks to the completion of a new 10-year master plan for the county’s parks and recreation department. A 408-page comprehensive plan was presented this summer by an outside firm hired by the county.
Perhaps the best feature of the master plan is that it provides objective and quantifiable measurements of the county’s assets for parks and recreation. It also establishes baseline standards for quantity and quality of current and future assets.
The report recommends the county strive to have 18 acres of green space per 1,000 citizens. Based on the county’s population, that goal amounts to almost 13,000 acres of parkland, but the county currently has less than 6,000 acres. By that same benchmark, District 2 would have about 2,500 acres of parkland, but currently it has about 400 acres.
District 2 is badly lacking in green space and is woefully inadequate compared to other districts. The approximate breakdown by district is District 5, 3,510 acres; District 3, 1,005; District 4, 751; District 1, 598; and District 2, 362 acres.
The inventory analysis underscores the lack of greenspace in Central DeKalb and other parts of the county. This finding needs to inform future greenspace acquisitions.
That approach is reflected in a report this fall from the county’s Parks Bond and Greenspace Office. The report provides its own analysis and recommendations of how the county should spend its remaining money from the 2001 and 2005 bond issues.
Those two bonds provided the county with a total of $121 million for parks and greenspace. As of October 2009, there was almost $37 million remaining.
The report recommends the county focus land acquisition in underserved areas and expand existing parks within these areas. The report says District 2 has roughly 15 percent of the county’s population, but only about 5 percent of its parkland and greenspace.
The parks master plan recommends the county strive to have one recreation center per 70,000 citizens. The county barely meets that standard with its 10 recreation centers. District 2, based on its population, should have two recreation centers. The report lists three centers in District 2 — Ashford, Briarwood and Mason Mill.
However, the report also states that recreation centers shall be at least 50,000 square feet in size. None of the three centers in District 2 meets that requirement.
Meanwhile, the county is proceeding with construction of new recreational centers in districts 3, 4 and 5, thanks to money from the county’s 2005 bond program. District 2 has $2 million from the program for renovations at Mason Mill Park, but no money for construction of a new center.
By all objective measurements, there is an underserved need in District 2. By generally accepted standards, the area does not have the same recreation opportunities as other parts of the county. The county needs to correct these deficiencies.
The county’s 2000 master plan for parks and recreation estimated $260 million was needed in capital improvements to bring county recreation facilities up to par. The following year, the county issued a $125 million parks bond program, of which $87 million was allocated for greenspace purchases.
Further, the county needs to budget for long-term maintenance obligations of proposed new facilities. Another recommendation is basic maintenance functions be brought back in-house, reversing a previous decision to place it under the county-wide facilities management department. Further, the county should evaluate the cost benefits of outsourcing selected maintenance functions.
The parks and recreation department has an operating budget of approximately $23 million, of which $13 million is designated for wages and benefits. With that budget, the report encourages the department to develop self-sustaining economic models.
There are several ways that model can be achieved, the report says. Two of them are establishing user fees consistent with the market rate, and developing private-public partnerships.
Another partnership that needs to be developed is with the county school system, which also invests in recreational facilities. It seems logical for such facilities to be used by the schools during the day and by the general public after school and on weekends. The county could maximize its resources by having its parks department and school system share construction and maintenance costs.
The final recommendation is to treat the master plan as a living document to be reviewed and updated regularly. In order to give gravitas to the report, its authors suggest submitting it to the Board of Commissioners for formal adoption.
To date, no such motion has come forth from the parks and recreation department. Hopefully, the new director will quickly follow through with this step to symbolize a new direction for the department.
As a whole, the report is a reminder that the county is behind the curve. It is a blueprint for management to help align the department’s performance with current generally accepted practices.