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November 6, 2012

New Albany City Council approves parks split

City will start its own parks department on Jan. 1

NEW ALBANY — The city will launch its own parks department Jan. 1, as the New Albany City Council approved on final reading Monday an ordinance to end the current joint agreement with Floyd County for recreational services.

Councilman Bob Caesar was the only member of the body to change his vote from the initial ballots, as the ordinance was approved 5-4. Caesar said he originally voted in favor of forming a city parks department because “I hate moving sideways and backwards.”

But Caesar estimated he’s spoken with 75 people on the topic, and they all were in favor of maintaining the joint New Albany-Floyd County Parks Department even though the city has paid about $4 million more toward the service than the county over the past eight years.

Several public speakers addressed the council before the vote, and each also opposed Mayor Jeff Gahan’s proposal to separate the parks system that has been a joint venture since 1994.

“There truly is no incentive to do this today,” said Scott Klink, chairman of the NA-FC Parks Board that will be disbanded after Dec. 31.

It’s “indisputable” that taxpayers will pay more because of the split since Floyd County and New Albany will each have their own parks department, he continued.

The agreement called for the city and county to foot the operation equally based on population. Responding to claims made by some including Councilman Dan Coffey that city facilities have bore the brunt of the funding shortfall, Klink said 75 percent of the budget is dedicated to parks in New Albany.

Parks in the city have received about $750,000 of the annual $1 million department budget according to Klink’s figures. New Albany has dedicated $600,000 for the parks budget next year, which would leave a gap of about $150,000 to maintain spending on city parks and programs based on Klink’s financial numbers.

Other speakers cited duplication of services as a reason to oppose the split, as well as lack of a detailed plan by Gahan and his administration for a new parks department.

Many of those against the divide donned bright green shirts that read “One Community One Park” during the meeting.

Former council candidate, local businessman and New Albany Rotary Club President Matt Oakley said it’s “very disappointing to some of us who are supposed to be looking up to leaders of the community” in regards to what he deemed a poor process to split the parks in part because of lack of communication.

Gahan addressed the council before the vote, and countered that city taxpayers have shouldered the majority of parks expenses without seeing positive results for too long.

“I believe I’ve given you over $4 million reasons why we should move forward,” he said. “This issue has been tabled for more than a decade.”

Gahan added that people will see an immediate change in the quality of city parks.

But current NA-FC Parks Superintendent Roger Jeffers predicted a bumpy transition from a joint to a city-only department for New Albany. Jeffers — who has not confirmed whether he’ll seek the superintendent position with the city — said the volunteer parks board has been disrespected by the lack of communication with the body from the council and administration.

“You people got paid more during the Pledge of Allegiance than they have during 111 years of service,” said Jeffers to the council, as he was referring to the combined tenure of current parks board members.

Jeffers said the parks board had to learn through media reports that the city was seeking applicants for a new, city-only board. Gahan later denied the city was accepting any applications, however the plan he submitted Thursday states on the second page the city will begin the process of re-establishing a New Albany parks board and that the, “city shall seek applicants interested in serving as parks commissioners.”

Parks officials said there are many issues that will have to be resolved by Jan. 1 in order to ensure no programs, leagues or events are jeopardized by the split.

One large issue is control of the Southern Indiana Sports Complex, which was given to the joint parks board with the stipulation the facility must be used for recreational purposes.

In Gahan’s plan, the administration proposes to operate the Southern Indiana Sports Complex without any change to use, but parks officials said the county is also interested in managing the facility.

As they did on the first and second readings, council members Dan Coffey, Scott Blair, Greg Phipps, John Gonder and Pat McLaughlin voted in favor of the divide.

McLaughlin said the parks agreement always allowed the board to pursue ending the joint deal if one side failed to adequately fund the department, yet the issue was only raised over the past year.

Reducing services based on funding likely would have garnered enough public outcry to remedy the situation several years ago, he said.

“I think if the steps had been taken early on, we probably wouldn’t be here right now,” McLaughlin said.

Coffey and Blair cited examples of what they called deficiencies in the parks including lack of tennis courts as well as water fountains and bathrooms that remain out of order.

Phipps responded to complaints that the city would be duplicating services.

“Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t cheap, in fact, it’s expensive,” he said.

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