Saturday, January 24, 2009

Now isn't the time to close parks in county

Saturday, Jan. 24, 2009

I suppose it makes perfect sense -- if you're a politician or bureaucrat.

With Fresno County scrambling to pay its bills, the Board of Supervisors will talk Tuesday about closing county parks for 18 months. Estimated savings: $1.7 million, give or take a mop or two.

Common sense says that this isn't the time to shutter the parks. The county unemployment rate is 13.2%. Even people with jobs are having difficulty making ends meet.

We need Kearney, Lost Lake, Winton and other county parks more than ever because they bring families together and provide cheap fun.

But looking out for the little guy rarely is the mission of the supervisors or the bureaucrats at the Hall of Records.

The supervisors' aim is to please their campaign contributors -- mainly public employees' unions, developers and corporate agriculture. The bureaucrats' goal is to keep their jobs. So, they're all going to talk about closing a modest park system that even in good times is minimally maintained.

I recognize that the supervisors must cut spending elsewhere or find new ways to keep the parks open.

So, here are some suggestions. (If you like them, you might want to attend the board meeting and share them with the supervisors Tuesday.)

Step one: Lower new Chief Administrative Officer John Navarrette's pay from $185,000 to the $157,000 that his predecessor made. Nothing against Navarrette, but times are tough and he has done nothing to justify a raise -- especially in the toughest economy since the Great Depression.

Step two: If I were a supervisor, I'd call Sheriff Margaret Mims and tell her that she needs to reinstate the inmate labor program. I'd also tell her that if she doesn't, then she shouldn't be surprised if I supported a challenger in the next election who promises to put inmates to work.

Again, nothing against the sheriff, but she appears more interested in protecting her turf than in stretching dollars.

Step three: I'd put together an adopt-a-park program. We already know that Table Mountain Casino wants to run Lost Lake Park, which the county has allowed to deteriorate for decades.

Lost Lake is a valuable piece of property along the San Joaquin River. It needs to be rebuilt and buffed to a shine -- not handed over to mining interests, another option on the table these days.

To be sure, I'd vet Table Mountain's proposal to make sure it's not an end run toward building a hotel there or somehow ending up with the property. And then I'd let the casino show us what it can do.

Step four: I'd scrub the county budget before putting parks on the chopping block. There are patronage jobs that can be eliminated. The supervisors also can lay off the district analysts added two years ago.

Step five: Speak the truth. Mothballing the parks won't be cheap -- especially when you consider that they would become even more attractive targets to vandals. In the end, the county probably wouldn't save a dime.

Tough times call for creativity and a willingness to make tough decisions. Closing the parks is neither.

We deserve better from our elected and appointed leaders.

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