Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fresno County supervisors to weigh closure of parks to cut budget gap

Friday, Jan. 23, 2009

Fresno County supervisors on Tuesday will consider closing county parks to help narrow an anticipated budget gap.

County administrator John Navarrette said he will recommend that the Board of Supervisors close the county's 17 parks for up to 18 months.

The move would save the county an estimated $220,000 in the fiscal year ending June 30. The savings would come from reduced maintenance costs.

In the next fiscal year, the county would save up to $1.5 million by closing the parks, Navarrette said.

Navarrette said he will present the park closure option during a discussion on an anticipated budget deficit. He estimates the county will face a $1.4 million deficit in the current fiscal year, based in part on reduced state funding.

If the board agrees to close the parks, county officials would have to return to the board with more details about how the plan would work, said Public Works Director Alan Weaver. Any proposal would require some maintenance costs.

Although still in the early stages, the proposal already has drawn opposition.

"I think it's a really bad idea," said Brandon Hill, president of the Fresno Audubon Society.

Thousands of residents, not just environmentalists, enjoy Lost Lake Park, Kearney Park and other county parks for picnics, bird watching and other activities, he said.

Fresno County officials need to consider other areas to cut, such as their own salaries, before closing parks, he said.

Board Chairwoman Susan Anderson doesn't want to close the parks, either. She said the county wouldn't save enough money to justify cutting off an important service.

She also said the county would end up spending additional money to re-open the parks at some point, to clean up after a period of neglect.

Supervisor Henry Perea said he is willing to support the closure plan. The county is going to have to cut a number of services because of revenue shortages, he said.

Parks aren't as essential as public safety services, such as the District Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Department, and decisions have to be made about what services are essential, Perea said.

Anderson said the county's financial situation isn't that bleak. The county could save as much money by cutting travel budgets as it would by closing parks, she said.

The county could eliminate 14 jobs if it decides to close the parks, Weaver said. The county would have to put up fencing and signs to try to keep people out, and continue to provide some oversight of the parks.

The county also could decide to let Table Mountain Rancheria run Lost Lake Park, Weaver said. A proposal to let the Indian tribe lease the park has drawn strong opposition from environmentalists and some supervisors.

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