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Without a tax increase, the forecast for parks and recreation looks bleak at best

With severe budget cuts coming in 2010 unless voters approve a tax increase in November, keeping our city running will require creative accounting. That's especially true for the parks department.

To meet its portion of the projected $25 million in city-wide reductions for next year, the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department could lose up to 75 percent, or about $9 million, of its general-fund budget next year. The department would go from 137.25 general fund FTEs (full-time equivalents) to 20, with perhaps 10 other employees keeping their jobs and being paid through Colorado Lottery grants. (Another 78.75 FTEs are paid through sources such as city enterprises and maintenance districts, and can only perform limited tasks, like working golf courses or lottery-funded construction.)

"It's sad," department director Paul Butcher says glumly. "One-hundred and thirty-eight years of a park system, and it closes down while Butcher is the director. But there's no one to blame; it's an economic condition."

Butcher's operation is anticipating closures of everything from community centers to pools, plus fee increases and the shifting of most costs to lottery grant and Trails and Open Space tax money.

About that last part: TOPS and lottery funds are restricted. Just 6 percent of TOPS money can go to maintenance, and then only for the 27 TOPS-funded parks, such as Jared Jensen and Soaring Eagles parks.

Lottery funds are even trickier; they can pay for water, but not electricity for water valves. They can't be used for toilet paper or trash hauling. Employees paid with lottery money can only perform lottery-funded work.

Nevertheless, Butcher hopes to give some facilities — including 12 event/sports complexes and 17 high-use parks like Monument Valley and Acacia — the same attention in 2010 that they received in 2009. The 27 TOPS parks will get less mowing and water. The other 85 city parks will have to make do with a foot of water annually and an occasional mow.

All this worries people like Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, who says parks and schools are the heart of neighborhoods.

"If we just let parks go, they'll become places for people to hang out, deal drugs, carry on with the types of activities that aren't healthy for the community," he says.

Parks aside, senior and community centers would be shuttered, pools emptied, and programs and park patrols at Garden of the Gods axed (though the visitors' center will stay open). The Pioneers Museum will close, with only director Matt Mayberry staying. Mayberry, an art and history expert, will basically become a maintenance man, wandering the empty halls á la Night at the Museum to monitor the building's temperature, humidity and security. He'll also be responsible for giving generous donors and loaners their stuff back.

Meanwhile, street medians won't be maintained. There will be no more city flower beds. Trees will be cut down or pruned only if they're diseased or a safety hazard.

Sertich Ice Center, along with youth and adult sports, will have to be self-supporting — meaning higher prices. Last year, the City Auditorium went to a similar system. Paying their own way puts those programs and centers at risk — one big maintenance problem or a drop in paying participants, and they're gone.

"They're going to be walking a tightrope, so to speak," says Kurt Schroeder, the city's manager of parks maintenance, open space and trails. "And making their revenue numbers is going to be critical."

stanley@csindy.com

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