From greenways to ball fields, state cuts could sideline local recreation wish list
Statewide parks and recreation funding is clashing with fiscal austerity in the current state budget process, in a showdown that has environmentalists and local governments bracing for the worst.
Gov. Pat McCroy has recommended a nearly 45 percent cut to the state’s Parks and Recreation Trust Fund compared to historical funding levels. It’s one of many proposed cuts unveiled last month in the new governor’s budget.
The Parks and Recreation Trust Fund would get $15.5 million instead of the $27 million it has historically gotten. That would mean less money for parks, greenways and sports fields in Western North Carolina, where a portion of the fund has been a lifeline for little governments with big projects.
Each year, the trust fund is divided into two main pots: 30 percent goes to recreation-related grants to counties, towns and cities and 65 percent to state park projects.
Since 1995, Jackson County has been awarded more than $1 million from the fund and used it to help pay for everything recreation, from horseshoe courts to a gymnasium.
“It’s made a lot of difference in our little area of the woods,” said Jeff Carpenter, Jackson County Recreation and Parks director. “It’s been great for us in Jackson County.”
Without the state assistance, Carpenter said business in the Parks and Recreation Department would slow to “a creep and a halt.” Instead of a three- to four-year timeframe for major projects, double that can be expected.
And the county hopes to be awarded another $435,000 this summer to help it construct the first section of the county’s future greenway equipped with a footbridge crossing the Tuckasegee. The county would put up the remaining $625,000 for the project.
Alex Bell, a fly fishing guide in Jackson County, said the greenway as it is envisioned would provided unprecedented access along the riverbank for activities like jogging, bicycling, boating and fishing. Bell also serves on the county’s greenway committee and knows without the matching funds from the state, the project will have a different outlook.
“I would not pretend to tell the state legislature how to spend the money, but our outdoor resources are valuable and critical, and we need to pass them on to generations to come,” Bell said. “If you can’t get to the water, you can’t fish.”
If the cuts to the fund were enacted, they would not take effect until the upcoming fiscal year, which starts in July. However, the slew of local grant applications submitted in January will draw from both next year’s and this year’s funds.
Several localities have already thrown their name in the hat for state park and recreation grants this go-around. Jackson County wants a greenway. Macon County wants $500,000 for a baseball complex. Waynesville wants $75,000 to refurbishing its tennis courts, just to name a few of the applications coming out of WNC.
And geographic distribution is one of the factors considered in the awards process.
“It’s a competitive process,” said Bayard Alcorn, head of the grant administration program for N.C. State Parks. “The more grants that come from a given region, it would be tougher for the other applications.”
Statewide, 74 small government projects applied in January, requesting a total of $20 million from the fund. And, if the governor’s proposal is adopted, Alcorn expects there to be about $4 million to $5 million to go around in coming years.
The latest cut, an uncertain future
Budget cuts have become a way of life for the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund since the recent recession.
Last fiscal year, more than $14 million was poached from the parks and recreation fund and diverted to other budget areas, including plugging a budget hole in state park operating costs. So far this year, $6 million was diverted from the fund to state park operations and more could be drawn out before year’s end.
The real meat of the governor’s recommended changes may not be the cuts themselves, however. The governor has proposed a new funding formula for the parks and recreation trust fund all together.
Currently, the trust fund gets an earmarked share of the real estate transfer tax, a fee tacked on to all property transactions. Under the proposal, it would lose this earmarked revenue and rely on a line item allocations each year with no guarantees.
That scenario could spell doom for the future of the fund, even when the economic outlook has improved. The governor’s proposal could shift the burden of funding parks and recreation projects even more so onto the backs of towns and counties. The outlook has brought the issue of local parks and recreation initiatives at the forefront of discussion.
Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown paused briefly to think about how getting funding for a town skate park would have gone without access to the extra resources.
“Could we have done the skate park without the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund?” Brown said. “I guess so, but it made the stretch a whole lot easier.”
Already, local governments around the state are passing resolutions urging the state not to gut the fund. Jackson County commissioners passed one at its meeting in early April. Macon County commission took a stance on the issue at their meeting Tuesday.
But Macon County’s Parks and Recreation director, Seth Adams, had already cast his verbal vote long ago in regards to the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund.
“I certainly hope that they do no cut it, it is vital to us,” Adams said. “I would think that’d be vastly unpopular.”
Several projects in Macon County have received funding from the state during the years. Namely, Franklin’s 5-mile greenway project along the Little Tennessee River received nearly half-a-million dollars in the state funds.
A member of the Franklin Bird Club also took a moment to consider what her guided bird walks would be like if she didn’t have access to the greenway.
“I don’t know a lot of the ins and outs of what funded the greenway to begin with,” Paula Gorgoglione said. “But I think it’s one of the best things that ever happened to Franklin.”
Parks and Recreation Trust Fund projects across the region have left similar, lasting marks on the landscape, while others are just getting underway.
Scott Cline, president of the Swain Youth Soccer Association, said the state parks and recreation funds awarded $30,000 towards renovation of the county soccer field. The organization has already raised $12,000 from donors to match the state money and begin much-needed grading, irrigation and landscaping work, and later possibly install new nets, bleachers and bathrooms.
He questioned where the project would be doable if it didn’t have the support of the state funds.
“We’d probably be in a situation where all we could do is put grass seed out there,” Cline said. “The matching money is allowing us to get it going in the right direction.”
However, the governor’s proposal is only a recommendation. Legislators in the General Assembly will be unveiling their own versions of the budget in coming weeks. N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said he is already determined to make sure the governor’s recommendation remains just that, a recommendation.
“I know the history of these trust funds and what good they do,” Queen said. “They serve every part of the state.”
Queen also said that the issue doesn’t have to be a partisan one. He urged N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, to push for the funds protection on the senate front.
Davis said he has fond memories of the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund from serving as a Macon County commissioner. He said the money helped expand a county recreation complex. But the fiscal reality means the state can’t fund everything it wishes it could — a mantra for Davis during the past two years. It will come down how much revenue the state has to divvy up among its priorities, the top two being education and public safety.
“I’d like to preserve (the fund) as much as I could,” Davis said. “But the bottom line is I’d like us to live within our means.”
By the numbers
The N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund has been a boon for mountain communities, offering matching grants for public town parks, swimming pool repairs, recreation centers, greenways, soccer fields, softball fields, gyms and even a skateboard park.
Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain have gotten $3.4 million in all since the fund’s inception. Some examples of projects are:
• Macon County: $467,000 to the Little Tennessee River Greenway; $250,000 for the Highlands recreation complex; and $70,000 for recreation park land acquisition in Highlands.
• Jackson County: $250,000 for the recreation center in Cullowhee; $250,000 toward the Monteith community park; and $181,000 toward the Canada community park.
• Haywood County: $250,000 for the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds; $250,000 toward the Canton baseball complex; $170,000 for Allens Creek soccer fields, $250,000 toward the Waynesville Recreation Center.
• Swain County: $187,000 for the improvements at the county recreation park; $150,000 for the county courthouse riverfront park; and $156,000 to the county’s recreation center.