City Council Parks and Recreation Budget Workshop
June 4, 2009, 2:00 pm
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Council Member Anne Clutterbuck, Chair of the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee, opened the workshop by introducing William “Joe” Turner and Cheryl Johnson. Turner is the Director of Houston’s Parks and Recreation Department, and Johnson is the Deputy Director.
Turner responded to several pre-workshop inquiries from Council members about the format of his presentation (he opted to send CDs instead of hard copies). According to him, the entire presentation was over 300 pages, and he did not want the Council members to read through “a ream of paper.”
Turner followed with a discussion of the Department’s assets. The City is responsible for 361 parks, 57 community centers, and 3 dog parks. Their budget is 69.1 million dollars, down from 70.2 million dollars last year. There was a 1.6 million increase in personnel services after the elimination of overtime and temp pay.
The Department bought 23 Priuses. These cars were used by heavy drivers, and they only use 9,800 gallons of gas per year. The cars also have 72 month warranties (instead of 100,000 mile warranties).
The budget also includes $8.3 million for a zoo contract and $600,000 for ASAP (After School Achievement Program). The Department currently has 1,308 employees, including part-time and seasonal employees. There are 905 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) employees.
Turner concluded his presentation, and the Council Members began to ask questions. Council Member James Rodriguez questioned the Department’s slow response to his constituents’ tree pruning needs. Turner replied, arguing that the standard tree pruning backlog was 6 months. In the period preceding Hurricane Ike, the Department shortened the period to 30 days. However, after the storm arrived, the backlog fell behind 2 months.
Council Member Jarvis Johnson asked about the steps being taken to attract children to Department facilities. He also wanted to know if the Department was collaborating with Centerpoint Energy to assist with tree pruning needs. Turner said that Centerpoint had a tree clean-up program, but that his Department was a “catch-up, not a front-end forestry department.” He continued, arguing that recreational centers still have the “manpower” necessary to survive, but they have not made any steps to attract children. However, Turner’s department has cultivated partnerships with many other Houston organizations, including sports teams like the Rockets and Astros.
Council Member M.J. Khan asked about the use of facilities. Khan believed that soccer fields were the most popular recreational spaces in Houston, and he wondered if the Department kept track of field use. Turner said the Department was currently working on a program (with North Texas State) that would accurately measure field use. However, if the field is “permitted,” then the Department already has an accurate count.
Council Member Toni Lawrence questioned the cost of golf courses. She believes that golf courses should be turned into something else if they are not being used. Council Member Lawrence also inquired about raising fees for facilities. She argued that other large Texas cities had already started charging for certain items. Turner said that he considered raising fees, but the economic crisis changed his mind.
Turner also argued that the Gus Wortham Golf Course, located in District I, has potential. It is not a bond issue project, but a revenue project. With the appropriate renovations, including a new driving range, the course could be profitable. Its proximity to the planned Harrisburg METRO stop could also generate money from visitors staying in Downtown hotels. Turner also considered raising golf course fees, but was reminded that golf courses are for the citizens.
Council Member Lovell asked about after-school programs. She wanted to know how much funding they would receive, how it would be dispersed, and the age ranges of most programs. Turner told her that the programs are primarily for elementary school children, and that the amount and dispersion of funds would be identical to last year.
Council Member Lovell also questioned the maintenance of pools. Turner said that the Department monitors pool traffic. If the pool is not used frequently, it is replaced with a spray ground. He continued, arguing that pools, like golf courses, are “a need.” A pool is generally “the” neighborhood pool.
Council Member Green asked if many of the public buildings within parks are “rentable.” According to Turner, only about four facilities have buildings large enough to rent for wedding receptions and similar events. The largest room in a building is generally the gym, which is used almost constantly. Council Member Green also inquired about the current state of the old Hermann Park Clubhouse. Turner replied, mentioning that several Parks and Recreation employees are now working in the building.
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