GAINESVILLE – As the population of Gainesville grows so does the demand for recreational opportunity. That message was clear Thursday morning as the Parks and Recreation Department budget for fiscal year 2020 was presented to the Gainesville City Council.
“If there is any indication from the maintenance that we’re handling in the parks, our parks are being loved to death,” said Michael Graham, Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation for Gainesville.
Alongside Graham sat Melvin Cooper, longtime Director for Parks and Rec. Thursday morning would be Cooper’s final budget presentation as he officially retires June 1 after 47 years with the department.
(The search team working to fill Cooper’s position has announced one finalist for the opening: Kate Mattison of Dublin, Ohio. Mattison's hiring is pending board approval.)
“Looking at the numbers,” Graham told council members, “the FY20 budget right now totals $5,791,258. It is balanced; it represents an overall increase of almost 10-percent over FY19.”
Graham said projects at the Lake Lanier Olympic Center, the new skate park, and additional personnel represent the largest share of the budget increase, but the more commonplace items are not being overlooked.
Upgrading and enhancing existing parks remains a primary goal of the department. “We launched implementation of the new park signage and new outdoor fitness equipment. Every time we’re looking at a new playground or replacing an existing playground, then we’re putting fitness equipment in at the same time.”
“Then when the parents or the grandparents bring the kids to the playground they can jump on some fitness equipment at the same time,” Graham added.
However staffing was a constant problem in 2018 according to Graham. “Literally the workload is starting to exceed the staff that we have,” he explained, saying new staff people were being hired to better handle the heavier demands.
Graham said a recent online community survey revealed some of the major concerns and suggestions that are forefront to park users: for example, bathroom facilities - costly additions to any park. “People want restrooms in every park; that’s something that we do not have.”
Because the millage rate for the Gainesville Parks and Rec Department is rigidly fixed, finding additional revenues can be a challenge. That should not be the case this year, according to Graham, because the tax base upon which revenues are generated has increased by over 11-pecent.
(The Parks and Recreation millage rate is unique, having been established by the voters of Gainesville in 1924. In that voter-approved referendum the Parks and Recreation millage rate cannot drop below 0.75-mils.)
Both Graham and Cooper pointed out to the council that the Parks and Rec Department does more than just spend money – it generates revenue, as well.
“If you notice,” Graham said, pointing at the budget report displayed overhead for the city council, “Lanier Point Park only brings in $139,000 in revenue, but it brings in almost $4-million in economic impact. And you’re going to see the same thing with Lake Lanier Olympic Park, even though it only brings in $74,000 in direct revenue, currently it brings in $3.9-million in economic impact.”
Those dollars spent at local hotels and restaurants and other places by visiting users of the park facilities are monies that would not otherwise come into Gainesville and Hall County, according to Graham. “That’s a huge part of what we have to look at.”