By DANIEL SUDDEATH
NEW ALBANY —
Employees, property and equipment — there’s much to settle and divide if the split of the New Albany-Floyd County Parks Department is approved on final reading next month.
During a special meeting Wednesday, the NA-FC Parks Board urged the city and county to expedite their plans as to how the two separate recreational systems will operate beginning Jan. 1.
NA-FC Parks Superintendent Roger Jeffers said despite Mayor Jeff Gahan’s meeting with parks employees last week, workers are still uncertain of their future.
“The last two weeks have been miserable for me,” Jeffers said, as he added he’s received numerous phone calls and inquires from the public about how the likely split will affect the parks system.
“The citizens are not happy.”
NA-FC Parks board chairman Scott Klink said he met with Gahan for two hours this week, and told him that due to the heightened emotions as a result of the New Albany City Council’s vote to end the parks on initial readings last week, he shouldn’t attend the special meeting.
However city attorneys Stan Robison, Shane Gibson and Economic Development Director David Duggins were in attendance. Gibson said the mayor intends for programs, employee levels and operations to remain “status quo” during at least the first three months of 2013.
“We can afford to go through at least the first quarter not changing anything,” said Gibson, who authored a new joint agreement for the parks department that was passed by the city and county before being vetoed by Gahan earlier this year.
As the county failed to meet its funding commitment for the department for several years and decided against implementing a cumulative capital fund in 2012 to match the city’s stake in the system, Gahan pushed for a separate New Albany parks entity.
If the council approves the ordinance to abolish the department — which has been a joint operation since 1994 — on the final reading on Nov. 5, the city will operate its own department beginning Jan. 1.
Among concerns raised by Jeffers is the lack of a transitional plan. He said Wednesday the administration seemed intent on separating the parks since February, yet a plan wasn’t produced for the council to weigh prior to proceeding with a vote last week.
“I don’t think there’s any way this can be settled in two months,” Jeffers said.
Gahan confirmed Monday that Floyd County will be able to pay the city for maintenance of its parks beginning next year. But Floyd County Planner Don Lopp told the board Wednesday that option will likely not be needed.
“The county is moving forward with the creation of a county parks department,” he said.
A transitional plan will be produced for the Floyd County Commissioners to review at their next meeting, Lopp said, as he added he’s scheduled to meet with Jeffers soon to review equipment ownership.
Parks attorney Greg Fifer said dividing the equipment could be more tricky than splitting the properties, and that obviously both departments will need some of the same machinery to perform tasks such as mowing grass.
County Commissioner Chuck Freiberger said he doesn’t feel the issue has driven a “wedge” between the city and the county.
“But I do feel like it’s better for us to stay united together,” he told the board.
But Gibson said it’s the administration’s plan to move forward with the creation of a separate city parks department. Parks board officials suggested the city council delay the final ballot on the abolishment ordinance until at least Nov. 15 so more of the issues could be resolved.
Councilman Dan Coffey is the sponsor of the ordinance and would have to agree to pull it from the Nov. 5 agenda before the delay could happen. Coffey wasn’t in attendance for the parks meeting, but council members Shirley Baird, Scott Blair and Pat McLaughlin were.
The ordinance was approved 6-3 on first and second readings last week.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to believe the city won’t move forward with what they’ve started,” Klink said, though he added he still hopes the body will change its mind.
The annual budget for the parks department is about $1 million, though it was more than $1.5 million just five years ago. Gibson said the preliminary city budget for 2013 calls for New Albany to up its financial commitment from $500,000 to $600,000 for the parks department.
But Jeffers said the budget he submitted for next year includes $700,000 for salary and health insurance for the 11 full-time and multiple part-time employees in the department.
The amount doesn’t take into account the 2 percent raise other city employees are set to receive, he added.
With the city and county both establishing their own departments, Klink said like Jeffers his primary concern is the employees. He said he would hate for the workers to have to “choose a parent in the divorce” or lose their jobs because of the divide.
Gibson said there will have to be a cost analysis performed in the first quarter of next year, but he assured the parks board that it isn’t Gahan’s intention to fire employees or to reduce the quality of any of the facilities.
According to Klink, Gahan touted a plan for $14 million in capital improvement projects for the city parks system when the two met this week. The city could use a variety of means to foot such a plan including bonds or tax-increment financing revenue.
Gahan has stated his desire to see a new Little League baseball park and outdoor aquatic center are among his reasons for wanting a separate city department.
As for Jeffers, he again said he hasn’t made up his mind whether he will work for the city or the county, and that he will wait until after the final vote and the Nov. 6 election to make up his mind.
He cited his frustration with the process, including the fact multiple officials from the city and county agreed to the new deal that was ultimately vetoed by Gahan.
“That makes me not want to work for either side to tell you the truth,” Jeffers said.