News and Tribune

November 2, 2012

Group calls for city council to delay or defeat NA-FC Parks split

By DANIEL SUDDEATH
daniel.suddeath@newsandtribune.com

NEW ALBANY — Tensions over the proposed New Albany-Floyd County Parks Department divide spilled over into a press conference Friday.

In front of the City-County Building, a group that included local business leaders, attorneys and elected officials gathered to make a final push to the New Albany City Council to strike down a proposal to split the joint parks department.

Toward the end of the press conference, NA-FC Parks Board Chairman Scott Klink was interrupted while addressing the media by Councilman Dan Coffey, who voted for the split on first and second readings last month and is the sponsor of the measure to divide the department.

“I’m listening to politicians talk up here is what I’m doing,” Coffey said, as the attention turned away from the group and toward the councilman.

Coffey is slated to introduce the measure to split the parks for a final vote on Monday.

He said the conditions of New Albany parks and especially facilities located within the inner city have deteriorated. Water fountains don’t work, bathrooms aren’t open and tennis courts are closed at multiple parks in the city, Coffey said.

The driving force behind Gahan’s call for a separate city parks system has been the county’s lack of equal funding for the department. According to the city, New Albany has paid about $4 million more into the system since 2004.

The shortfall takes into account the operating funds spent on the parks department, as well as a separate cumulative capital tax paid by New Albany residents for the system.

Though the county has made recent efforts to fund the department fully based on the existing agreement, Coffey said city parks have bore the brunt of the inequity. 

“Don’t talk to me about equality,” Coffey said, as he added his vote isn’t about the money, but rather based on his desire to see improvements in the city parks.

Klink countered that inner city facilities such as Bicknell Park have been upgraded in recent years, and that the Griffith Street Center’s programs are used primarily by New Albany children.

He added that the new agreement proposed earlier this year was supported by Coffey before it was ultimately vetoed by Gahan.

Steve LaDuke, vice chairman of the parks board, said that during his time on the body not one person has come to a meeting to complain about the condition of a city or county park.

“City council members talk about all these complaints they have received, I haven’t heard from one council member about the condition [of the parks] either,” LaDuke said. “That fact makes me feel they are trying to justify their support for splitting the parks to themselves.”

Gahan released his plan to transition to a city parks department Thursday. Klink said the plan “pretty much reflects what the mayor said he was going to do.”

The plan calls for an increase in funding to upgrade city parks, and states there will be no changes for the 11 full-time department employees during the first quarter of 2013.

Gahan’s plan also allots for the county to pay the city for maintenance of its parks if the split is approved. Floyd County Commissioner Steve Bush said Thursday the county is moving forward with its own parks plan, and doesn’t intend to pay the city for maintenance.

Klink said the county has responded to a parks board request for how the entity proposes to handle the distribution of property and infrastructure if the divide takes place.

The city didn’t provide a response by the Oct. 31 deadline and the plan released by Gahan Thursday doesn’t answer all the questions put forth by the board, Klink continued.

Along with Coffey, council members Bob Caesar, Greg Phipps, John Gonder, Scott Blair and Pat McLaughlin voted in favor of the split last month.

Phipps said Friday he still backs Gahan’s proposal.

“I just think it’s an excellent plan, and I support it 100 percent,” he said.

Gonder also said Friday he still stands behind the mayor’s plan, especially because it gives the county the option to pay the city for maintenance.

“I thought that the mayor laid out a pretty good alternative,” he said. “I think the plan the mayor laid out saves the county from the obligation to start its own parks department.”

Gahan released a statement on the press conference Friday, as he called it “an obvious political stunt.”

“Election day jitters have forced county officials to make promises that are in complete contradiction to both their recent actions and public statements,” Gahan said. “My plan is the best way to improve parks and recreation here in New Albany, and I encourage everyone to visit our website to read it.”

The plan was posted on the city’s website, www.cityofnewalbany.com, Friday.

Floyd County Planner Don Lopp, Floyd County Council members Dana Fendley and Brad Striegel, and former mayoral candidate Irv Stumler were among the group that called the press conference.

Statements were read and credited to Floyd County Commissioners opposing the split. City Councilman Kevin Zurschmiede — who along with Shirley Baird and Diane McCartin-Benedetti voted against the divide — again stated his disagreement with Gahan’s proposal.

“I think the county has put forth a lot of effort to equalize their funding,” he said.

Though Gahan has released a plan, Klink said he still is concerned about the future of programs and leagues in the system. With the establishment of city and county parks systems imminent, Klink said the entities will likely be fighting over employees and creating further divisions.

“You’re fragmenting the organization and the people that run the programs,” Klink said. “They can accomplish all the goals they want to accommodate without dividing this program.”