By DANIEL SUDDEATH
NEW ALBANY —
Citing failed financial commitments and the need to begin planning for a new public pool and Little League baseball complex, Mayor Jeff Gahan confirmed Tuesday he will seek to end the current format and create a separate New Albany parks and recreation department.
The city and Floyd County have been at odds over funding the joint parks and recreation system for about a year. The shared agreement called for the city and county to foot the New Albany-Floyd County Parks Department’s operational budget equally based on population, which has been about the same in New Albany as outside the city limits since the deal was signed in 1994.
But when including all funding, New Albany has provided about $4 million more for the department than the county since 2004, according to city records.
The county has also declined to implement a cumulative capital fund — a source which New Albany used to generate $685,625 from 2007 to 2011 for building and other expenses related to parks and recreation.
Through additional appropriations, the county did match the city’s operational commitment to the department this year, as each side footed about $500,000 for the $1 million annual budget.
But the 2013 budget being considered by the Floyd County Council only calls for a $250,000 allotment for the parks next year.
Gahan said the city is planning an outdoor aquatic center and a new Little League facility, and that New Albany doesn’t have “the time or the luxury” to wait on the county to honor its financial obligations to the parks department.
“Most people agree that our city has fallen behind in terms of outdoor recreational facilities for our youth,” he said. “I’m certain the reason the city has found itself in this position is because of the current parks structure.”
Gahan said his aim is to begin a city parks department next year, and a measure could be before the New Albany City Council as early as its next meeting Oct. 18 calling for an end to the current agreement.
County, parks board reaction
Fundamentally speaking, it doesn’t make sense to separate the parks system, Floyd County Commissioners President Steve Bush said.
“I don’t have a problem with [the city] being frustrated, but to split the parks, it’s probably not going to be best for the residents as a whole,” he said.
There’s also much to be determined in terms of what a divide would mean, Bush continued.
He said it still needs to be confirmed, but he’s been told the agreement requires the Southern Indiana Sports Center to be given back to its original owner if the county and city split the parks department.
The Southern Indiana Sports Center was donated to the department in 2006 by the Blue Sky Foundation, and the administrative parks offices are housed there.
NA-FC Parks Superintendent Roger Jeffers and parks board chair Scott Klink declined to comment on the situation until after they address the full board on the possible division next week.
Though the split may not be popular for the county, Bush said he would not favor filing a legal injunction against the city to halt the move.
“We’re not going to get into the game of suing,” he said.
The biggest park in New Albany — Sam Peden Community Park off Grant Line Road — is owned by the county. No matter what the city does, Bush said the county will support the parks, as he added he would not back selling Community Park for commercial interests.
“If they decide to make that decision and move forward, we’ll sit down with the current parks board members and see what can be done,” he said.
Floyd County Council President Ted Heavrin said the reason the current proposal is to only fund $250,000 of the parks budget next year is due to financial constraints. The expenses of murder trials, infrastructure costs and the possibility the county’s budget could be cut for 2013 have left the council with some tough decisions to make, he continued.
“They don’t realize how much money the county is putting out for everything,” Heavrin said.
But as was the case this year, Heavrin said the council told Jeffers it would likely appropriate more money after the county budget is certified by the state, which could be in February or March.
“If we don’t have to cut [the budget], we should be OK,” he said.
But City Councilman Dan Coffey — who will sponsor the measure to end the joint agreement — said the county has had ample opportunity to commit and honor its funding requirements.
Coffey was one of five city council members that voted in favor of a new parks deal in April that would have required equal funding to be put in place by each entity by Oct. 1.
If the funding wasn’t approved for the parks department, then the contract could be voided.
Though proponents of the agreement — which was passed by the county commissioners, county council and parks board —said it included tougher language than the existing contract, Gahan vetoed the deal. He said there was already a contract in place that called for equal funding, and that the county needed to make restitution for the past shortfalls before a new deal could be reached.
Though the council voted 5-4 to override Gahan’s decision, six ballots in favor are needed to overturn a mayoral veto in New Albany.
Coffey also voted in favor of overriding the veto, but said his stance has changed due in part to the $250,000 funding commitment made by the county next year for parks. He added that he met with Bush and Gahan over the issue, and asked Bush to support a cumulative capital fund, which he did not.
“That was the final straw,” Coffey said. “I could see at that point in time there was no real effort.”
But Bush countered that he approached Gahan requesting negotiations to resolve the differences, but hasn’t spoken with him about the matter in several months. He said both sides should meet and attempt to save the current structure of the parks department.
Bush added the county should fund the parks equally, and foot its requirement of $500,000 next year.
But Gahan said another issue is the amount of people who cast decisions on the parks. Essentially 30 people — the mayor, three county commissioners, nine city council members, seven county council members and 10 parks board members —are involved with parks issues and votes, Gahan said.
“The bureaucracy there is just too heavy,” he said. “We’re convinced that the current model needs to be changed.”