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Maintenance Mayhem

Eugene's parks need new funding to keep them running
Kids splash in the fountain at riverplay in skinner butte park. Photo by Todd Cooper.
Kids splash in the fountain at riverplay in skinner butte park. Photo by Todd Cooper.

It’s 1938 in Eugene, and Spencer Butte is in danger. If Eugeneans can’t raise $7,000, Spencer Butte and its iconic trees will be on the chopping block for the logging industry. 

Peeling through archived newspaper articles, Heather Kliever, curator of education and registrar at Lane County Historical Society, reads aloud descriptions of a daunting fate for the prominent Eugene landmark. 

The Eugene community succeeded in saving Spencer Butte, she says, with help from the Eugene Business and Professional Women’s Club and chairman of the Eugene city park commission, F.M. Wilkins, a local businessman who was the driving force and voice for the cause.

In the winter of 1938, after a series of town meetings, news stories and donations, the park fund reached its halfway point in eight days, according to Kliever. To make up the rest of the money needed to purchase the land, the city proposed and later voted through a tax levy.

“What is interesting to know is, could he have done this sort of stuff nowadays?” Kliever asks. “We don’t think the same way anymore, I don’t think. How fortunate were we to have this guy, really.”

Spencer Butte likely would not be the tree-abundant hiking destination it is today if it weren’t for a previous generation of Eugeneans who cared about their parks. 

This love of local parks has resurfaced over the years through voting records, especially with the 1998 and 2006 bond measures that were passed to acquire and develop land for parks.

But as Eugene’s park system has grown considerably in size, the funding to maintain all of that parkland has not kept pace. With a $4.3 million yearly budget for maintenance, Parks and Open Space has an estimated $2 million operational maintenance budget gap and a capital backlog of close to $30 million for renovating parks — this has led to an aging system with problems like decrepit park furniture, broken-down bathroom facilities and worn-out running trails, according to a 2016 report. 

The report also linked illegal camping and homelessness with illicit activity, saying that “the financial impact of illegal homeless camping on the park system has become very significant and difficult to address within existing resources.”

Other Oregon cities have used utility fees to pay for park upkeep, but as with many things in Eugene, the funding discussion is slow to develop. Conversations between the parks department and City Council have taken place for years. 

Mayor Kitty Piercy says insufficient funding for parks is not a new conversation. It’s ultimately up to the people of Eugene to decide how they want to fund their parks, Piercy says.

 

 

MORE PARKS, MORE PROBLEMS

Eugeneans use their parks so often that 73 percent of adults visit local parks in any given week. That’s 9.3 million annual visits to parks in Eugene, according to the Eugene Parks and Recreation System Needs Assessment Report, a collaboration between Parks and Open Space, a division of Public Works, and Recreation Services, a division of the Library Recreation Cultural Services department, according to city planner Carolyn Burke.

Eugene’s concern for preserving and protecting its natural areas and parks can be seen throughout the entire park system. From the expansive view at the top of Spencer Butte’s summit to the abundance of trees that line the Willamette River along the Ruth Bascom bike path, Eugene is full of natural beauty. 

According to Craig Carnagey, director of Eugene Parks and Open Space, the number-one amenity Eugeneans said they wanted in a survey conducted last year “was to maintain what we have right now and see those amenities improved,” including things like park benches and tree canopies. “People really want to get back to the basics, but improve those basics throughout the system,” the survey revealed.

In one of its newsletters, Parks and Open Space briefly explains the consequences of insufficient funding for “existing and planned parks, trails and amenities” with three categories. The first is maintenance. 

According to the newsletter, 14 of Eugene’s 105 parks and natural areas and three facilities are characterized as in good condition and require “only basic maintenance.” Emily Proudfoot, principle landscape architect in the Parks and Open Space planning office, explains that some of these parks include Acorn, Friendly and Awbrey parks.

Twenty-two parks and two facilities have some basic features in poor condition, which require modest rehabilitation, and 24 parks require major renovation, including Tugman Park, Lincoln School Park and Fladden Park, according to Proudfoot.

If this funding issue is not resolved, the consequences include an ongoing delay in developing 17 acquired parklands across Eugene, from Ferndale Park and Ruby Park in North Eugene to Golden Gardens Park and Grasshopper Meadows in West Eugene. 

According to Parks and Open Space, delayed development and a shortage of funds means a prolonged lack of access to parks for children and families throughout Eugene, a decline in the function and appearance of playground equipment, restrooms, ornamental landscapes, lawns and trails, as well as limited access to more than 1,000 acres of natural area and a system-wide decline in habitat quality.  

 

View of Spencer Butte from the top of Mount Pisgah. Photo by Todd Cooper.

 

 

BUDGET ISSUES

As a result of budget cuts and an operational and maintenance budget gap, Eugene Parks and Open Space has developed only one neighborhood park — Creekside Park, in north Eugene off of Gilham — over the past seven years, Carnagey says.

In order to resolve the budget gaps, Carnagey says it will take more than the efforts of public officials. It will require a show of support by the local community. 

“This community loves its parks. It wants us to do something so that it continues to have great parks. That’s been fantastic to hear. But again, we need to see that support come out and make it known,” Carnagey says. 

He adds that this support would be “for adequate operating and maintenance funding and then also support for capital improvements to our facilities," which would "provide parks to areas that are underserved right now in the north and in the west.”

These budget issues, internal to the parks department, have been made known to the public through recent reports and newsletters.

This past winter, Eugene Parks and Recreation System released a system needs assessment report. In this 93-page report, the department discussed its history, success, usage of parks and needs. As Burke and Carnagey explain, the report gathered information from 7,000 Eugeneans who participated in the PARKS and RECreate surveys — an effort from Parks and Open Space as well as Recreation Services to hear from the community — to help adopt a master plan for the next 10 years and beyond. 

The report clearly states that “because of the magnitude of the need,” funding for maintenance “will require voter-approved bond funding or another large source of capital dollars dedicated to specific projects.”

 

 

ILLICIT ACTIVITY

In addition to problem-solving with insufficient maintenance funds, Parks and Open Space reports a further constraint on its budget gap: illicit activities and illegal camping. 

Eugene’s 2016 Parks and Rec System Needs Assessment states that illicit activities, ranging from vandalism to prostitution and illegal camping, cost $250,000 in 2014. 

Lacey Risdal, financial manager for Eugene Public Works, says the department spent “approximately $200,000 per year on illicit activity in these two years [2015 and 2016]. This includes the costs of our park ambassador program, homeless camp posting and clean-up, removal of graffiti, repair of broken park amenities.” 

And of the $200,000 spent on illicit activities, Risdal says, about $100,000 is spent on illegal homeless camps alone.

As Carnagey adds, camping in Eugene’s public parks is illegal and creates, according to the Parks and Recreation survey, an unwelcoming and unsafe environment for park users. 

“It’s unfortunate that people don’t have a place to go and they get moved around quite a bit in the process, but nevertheless we have to clean it up and it’s quite expensive and quite extensive,” Carnagey says. 

Homeless advocate Sue Sierralupe says it’s important to remember that the day-to-day routine of unhoused individuals differs from that of the average park user.

Sierralupe is manager of Occupy Medical, which offers free medical services to low-income and homeless individuals and families at the Park Blocks in downtown Eugene.

 According to the needs assessment report, Eugene has seen a significant increase in illegal camping. In 2014, there were 600 homeless camps, a number that grew to 715 in 2015. 

Sierralupe says the mention of the homeless community in the report is a “good first half-step, at least acknowledging that there are unhoused people in the world.” The report, she says, appears to be written for homeowners like herself and presents an isolating message.

Sierralupe says she wants a better explanation in the report to address the correlation between population growth and the rise in illegal camping. 

“As our boundaries are decreasing, our economic situation has also destabilized,” Sierralupe says. “We will naturally see more homeless people and we will see them in our homeowner’s spaces, because there are fewer places for people to hide.”

 

 

LIMITED FUNDING

In 1998 and 2006, Eugene citizens passed bonds for parkland acquisition and development. However, these bonds can only be used for capital funding, meaning the $27.5 million bond from 2006 could not be used to cover operational and maintenance costs. And the 1998 and 2006 bonds can only be used for specific purposes as outlined when citizens voted for them. 

For instance, the parks department cannot use the 1998 or 2006 bond money to repair and renovate neighborhood parks due for updates to meet Americans with Disabilities Act compliance or replace old equipment. It’s not that the bond measure couldn’t have included funding for repair and renovation, but rather that it didn’t despite the dismay of local park advocates, Risdal says. 

Both Parks and Open Space and Recreation Services have also received more than $2 million in donations and $10.2 million in grants over the past 10 years. But just as there are limitations to the 1998 and 2006 bonds, the grants are not usually given for maintenance funding, and the donations received are often intended for capital improvements such as building new parks, Carnagey explains. 

Scott Milovich, operations manager with Eugene Parks and Open Space, says 2014 was the last budget reduction, which resulted in reducing daily trash pickup in neighborhood parks to two days a week, and up to three days a week in summer. 

Milovich adds that since this last budget reduction, his department has moved resources around so that maintenance staff can more frequently visit parks that are heavily used or produce more trash.

Other reductions, according to the needs assessment report, include a 75 percent reduction in turf watering in neighborhood parks during summer months, permanently closing three park restrooms and reducing the frequency of mowing sports fields by 50 percent.

As parks have expanded from 2,504 acres in 1997 to a present total of 4,568 acres, so has the need to figure out how and who will maintain Eugene’s parks, including mowing, moving trash in and out of trashcans and opening restrooms.

While parks department employees discussed possible solutions over this summer to resolve the capital and operational budget gap, local citizens have pitched in their time and effort to maintain Eugene’s parks. 

 

Fun on the merry-go-round at candlelight park. Photo by Trask Bedortha.

 

 

VOLUNTEER BOOST

Currently, volunteers contribute a large portion of the maintenance needed for regular upkeep of parks, from mowing and weeding to picking up trash. Volunteers contribute a total value of $1.4 million in donated time, according to Eugene Parks and Recreation.

Every year since the Great Recession of 2008, the parks department has witnessed an increase in the number of citizens volunteering to help maintain Eugene parks, Carnagey says. This rise in volunteering has coincided with the growth of the operational maintenance budget gap. 

Local volunteers tackle some of the work not completed by the 35 to 40 paid maintenance staffers.

From January to March in 2016, volunteers spent 3,800 hours at 44 parks and natural areas in Eugene, says Katie Blair, a city park development volunteer coordinator.

Alexis St. John, an artist in Eugene, volunteers a few times a week at the dog park at Wayne Morse Family Farm in south Eugene. She goes with her dog Piper to refill disposable waste bags for other dogs.

She would still donate her time to the dog park with or without an operational maintenance budget gap.

“I’ll do this as long as I feel good about it,” St. John says. “It’s just something fun for me to do.”

As part of her morning routine, a few days during the week and the weekend, St. John and Piper make the journey from the University of Oregon campus area to Wayne Morse Dog Park. Before circling around the expansive green field, she checks the black trash bag compartments and fills them as needed. 

While her volunteer duties are mainly to refill the trash bags, she also has used her own skills to improve the gate system by attaching blocks of wood to make it more difficult for dogs to run out of the field and into the street. 

Being able to take Piper to the park helps St. John to deal with anxiety and stress, she says. 

“I’m an introvert, so it’s good for me to get out, too, and say hi to people I know and who know [Piper]. It’s good for both of us to socialize a bit,” St. John says.

 

 

ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS

Parks and Open Space is appreciative and grateful for its blossoming volunteer program, Carnagey says, adding that the thousands of hours volunteers have contributed over the past eight years has “helped considerably.” 

Even with help from community volunteers, Carnagey explains that the park system cannot depend on volunteers alone to maintain public parks.

In the June 2016 newsletter “Picture Your Parks,” Eugene Parks and Open Space outlines three possible solutions to specifically address the $2 million operational budget gap. Each of these solutions boils down to funding. 

Ideas range from identifying and securing “additional operational funding to pay for the maintenance of existing and planned parks, trails and amenities,” to making use of outside resources with donations, grants, partnerships and volunteers.

Carnagey says he’s looking for alternative ways to fund maintenance outside of using general funds. While nothing is set in stone or near to being official, Carnagey is working with his colleagues on ideas that will remedy the funding issue. Potentially, Eugene could have a levy or charge a small park fee on monthly EWEB bills, an idea already implemented last April in Tigard, Oregon.

 

 

COMMUNITY CHOICE

Ultimately, upcoming funding discussions will take place this October and November as Recreational Services as well as Parks and Open Space speak with City Council. Mayor Kitty Piercy says general funds will not be enough to repair the budget gap, and she emphasizes that this decision is not about what she wants or what the council wants, but rather what the Eugene community wants.

Piercy says that for some councilors, the focus of this budget issue is to “figure out a way to take care of what we got before we do more. Let’s not keep acquiring and not being able to do anything with it,” Piercy says.

She continues, “So the question is, under the current money that we have for all of our city services, does the community want to invest in maintenance, filling gaps and making usable things we already have?” 

Greg Evans, Eugene’s Ward 6 city councilor, says he has an idea to resolve the operating maintenance gap, and he’s been advocating it for more than three years. Evans says he would like to see outdoor and indoor recreational and sporting facilities built, particularly in areas like Bethel, which lack recreational facilities. It would require capital funding, Evans says, but in the end, it could help reduce the $2 million operational maintenance budget gap. 

Building new facilities would require some source of capital funds, such as a tax levy, bond or utility fee. Evans compares his idea to Willamalane’s facilities in Springfield, citing the revenue those facilities attract from sporting events.

New recreational facilities, Evans explains, could charge user fees for community-based sporting events and in turn create revenue for local businesses. This money from sporting events, he explains, would circle back to general funds, which could then be used for operations and maintenance costs for parks.

EW contacted seven other city councilors during a break period, but they either declined to comment on the parks funding issue or circled back to a discussion of carving out the money from general funds.

 

 

PAYING FOR PARKS

"At some point you have to grab the land and preserve it,” Risdal says. “And we know that we’ll develop it later, but if we don’t do it, it will get developed or somehow turned into something. In order to leave a legacy, you’ve got to start by acquiring the land.”

This mindset led to the acquisition of Spencer Butte in 1939, and it’s a difficult one to fault, even if it has led to budget problems. 

In 2016, what will Eugene do to save its parks and make them more accessible?

Heading into the fall season, Parks and Open Space with Recreation Services continue to hear from Eugeneans surveyed about many issues, including accessibility. One survey participant, Jason Boone, the former chairman of a local mountain bike club, has expressed concern to park employees about maintenance of park trails.

For Boone, who says he uses the parks every week, parks are important to him and his family for their overall health.  

“Parks should be something like education that we invest in heavily, and so I’m always in favor of more maintenance, more work,” Boone says.

Before the City Council makes any decisions, Eugene community members can still voice their opinion. Eugeneans can access the “Picture Your Parks” survey, which includes funding questions, and the parks department will conduct a phone survey to ask local citizens how much more they are willing to spend on parks. 

In October and November, Parks and Open Space with Recreation Services will present to the City Council their findings from both surveys. 

To take the survey, visit eugene-or.gov/2899/Get-Involved.