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Spare our city parks

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The following is an open letter to Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera and members of the City Council, who next week will approve the city's budget for 2004:

As you know, the proposed budget will further reduce already inadequate funding for essential services provided by the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department.

As a member of the Parks Advisory Board, I understand that Colorado Springs is facing a significant shortfall in tax revenue this year, and I do not envy the decisions you must make. Some cuts in funding are inevitable, but those cuts fall disproportionately on our Parks Department, one of the top parks systems in the United States. I, along with the rest of the board, urge you to find creative solutions in order to spare our city the worst impacts of the proposed budget cuts.

The Parks Department and the services it provides are invaluable for Colorado Springs because:

Parks and playgrounds allow individuals and families to improve their physical health and well-being while relieving stress.

Colorado Springs must preserve the quality of life enjoyed by local residents in order to continue to attract new employers and jobs to the area, raise property values and ensure a continuous flow of tourism dollars.

The Parks Department offers wholesome activities for all ages; organized sports and recreational programs for children and teens play a key role in reducing juvenile crime, antisocial conduct and gang behavior.

Above all, parks are public spaces where local citizens can interact with each other and build a sense of community and develop civic pride.

You have been asked to approve a budget that shrinks parks funding in excess of 15 percent, a staggering percentage of the department's overall operating budget.

The Parks Department has added no new budgeted employee positions in the past 20 years. Over the past six years, Colorado Springs has added 29 new parks and open spaces.

As originally proposed, the 2004 budget would eliminate 22 full-time staff positions within the Parks Department, as well as more than 110 seasonal workers who perform day-to-day services for the department. More than one-third of citywide positions eliminated are being taken from the Parks Department. The impact of these cuts will be severe.

The loss of skilled maintenance workers will mean less-frequent mowing of playing fields and medians. Most operations of the city greenhouse will cease, and the Parks Department will be unable to continue maintaining the beautiful flowerbeds that grace downtown and elsewhere in the community.

In addition to the flowers that mark Colorado Springs as a world-class city, the greenhouse currently maintains about 8,000 shrub beds that will be neglected under the proposed budget.

The Parks Department will be forced to close 19 restroom facilities. Youth and adult recreation programs will also suffer as the hours of operation are slashed at facilities including the Sertich Ice Center, the Pioneers Museum, Rockledge Ranch, Helen Hunt Falls, the Starsmore Discovery Center, Prospect Lake Beach, and local aquatics and recreation centers. Many of the Parks Department's programs serve populations such as the elderly and at-risk youth, populations that have few alternatives for such services.

Although the proposed cuts are the largest the city has ever seen, the 2004 budget continues the alarming trend of shifting city responsibility for parks maintenance and cultural services to other, less-reliable sources of revenue. Colorado Springs has replaced General Fund monies that used to go for Parks Department salaries with funding received from the proceeds of the state lottery and the Trails, Open Space and Parks tax passed by voters in 1997.

Parks and community centers require professional staffing and financial support to keep them clean, safe and useful for Colorado Springs residents. Spending for parks, youth recreation and community centers is an investment in the future of our community and our youth.

The draconian cuts in parks funding in the proposed 2004 budget are not sustainable, and the services and programs we lose next year may never be restored in the future.

Please remember that the Parks Department is an important community asset, and it should be a high priority for funding.

Stephen D. Harris is a Colorado Springs attorney and a member of the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Advisory Board.

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