On June 30, Paso Robles’ recreation department will lose about a dozen employees and with them, more than 100 years of experience. Though the official stance is that this is merely the result of an early retirement incentive to save the city money, the exodus points to signs of turbulence in a department that is dwindling as the city copes with a drained economy and its own unique list of financial headaches.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Quantifying exactly how big of a hit Paso Robles recreation and parks is about to take is a bit tricky. Operations and maintenance of city parks is split between the Library and Recreation Department and Parks Maintenance Division of Public Works. But according to one employee who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the situation, the city is primed to lose four of its nine full-time recreation employees, as well as the recreation services manager and eight of 19 part-time employees.
“I’m venturing to guess that 100 to 150 years of experience just disappeared,” said another person who works closely with the city.
It’s no coincidence the employees have chosen June 30 as their date of departure; the date marks the end of the current fiscal year, after which the city will launch into its next two-year budget cycle for fiscal years 2011-12 through 2012-13.
“I think a testimony of what’s going on at the city is the rec department,” the same source told New Times. “… They’re just taking off; dropping like flies.”
Parks and recreation has already taken a hit as Paso city officials attempt to shore up a spending plan that has been running in deficit in recent months. To save money this year, city officials decided to at least temporarily close Centennial Pool during the summer, a move that stirred controversy among residents as well as parks and recreation advocates. City officials also cut funding for the Oak Park Recreation Program, which has offered services to area kids for more than 18 years. Without a steady funding stream, it’s set to close in mid-May.
Martha, a 28-year-old mother of two, began going to Oak Park when she was 13. For now, her kids should still have a place to go. The YMCA is set to take over the program, but will no longer offer services for middle and high-school kids, which make up about 60 percent of the current participants.
“I don’t know what they’re going to be doing with the new program,” Martha said during a brief phone interview.
The elimination of such programs and facilities may have as much to do with the departures as “golden parachutes” for employees who choose early retirement. One longtime employee told New Times the city’s official response is that so many people are leaving because of early retirement incentives, but indicated the real reason has more to do with how the city has prioritized its spending.
On Feb. 14, in anticipation of the City Council closing Centennial Pool, the nonprofit Recreation Enhances Community (REC) Foundation drafted a letter requesting the city dip into its reserves—or “rainy day” funds—to save recreation services.
“For me, besides the closure of access to recreational opportunities such as Centennial Pool, will be the loss of access to the numerous programs the Rec Dept. provided for Paso Robles residents,” REC Foundation board member Greg Haas said in a separate e-mail to New Times. “… There is no question in my mind that the loss of these dedicated folks will be felt in planning events, the quality of events, and the number of recreation opportunities for the residents.”
According to a city financial forecast, Paso Robles has about $10.4 million in reserves (15 percent of the general fund budget). However, the city is also facing a $1.9 million deficit for the current year, and about $6.1 million over the next five years. And as much as Paso is hurting due to the same litany of economic bloodletting as most other cities, it also has the dangling guillotine of the Nacimiento Water Project.
As city officials make multiple attempts to persuade citizens to agree to increased water bills, the city is facing its own bills of roughly $5.2 million per year to pay its share of the construction and operations costs of the 45-mile pipeline stretching from Lake Nacimiento to San Luis Obispo.
Without the safety of a vote from residents to cover the cost through increased utility bills, city officials will likely be more frugal with reserves in coming years.
“In general I think that we’ve just wanted the community to be aware that this is an underlying challenge,” Assistant City Manager Meg Williamson said of the Nacimiento costs affecting the city’s general fund expenditures. “And ultimately … though these things operate independently, they could be tied together.”
Randal Moos, chair of the Paso Robles Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee (PRAC), said the cuts “started kind of a snowball effect.”
“One led to another led to another and the next thing you know, you’ve got a lot of exodus of people now,” he said.
Stressing that many parks employees have stuck it out because of their passion for the work, Moos guessed some became frustrated by the cuts, though he noted that he believed officials such as City Manager Jim App are doing the best they can given the fiscal problems Paso’s facing.
“If you don’t have programs in the community, you don’t have the community for very long,” Moos said. “And I think that’s what frustrated people.”
News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at email@example.com.