Janesville47.3°

Are parks worth the price?

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Marcia Nelesen
October 26, 2012

— Janesville is known as "Wisconsin's Park Place," but some city council members question the cost.

The city boasts more parkland per capita than any other state city.

Councilman DuWayne Severson noted a recent survey shows half the city's residents would reduce park services to avoid raising taxes. Only 11 percent said they would pay more taxes to maintain services.

Tom Presny, parks director, said Janesville's parks and open spaces "speaks to and complements our community."

City Manager Eric Levitt told council members at a recent budget study session he didn't ask the parks department to make more cuts in 2013 after reductions in previous years.

The city would have to eliminate parkland to squeeze any more from the budget, Levitt said.

"We do have lists to downsize parks, and that would be one way to reduce service levels," Levitt said. "(The city would) have parks that people are proud of while reducing areas."

Council members asked for the list of city-owned land that could be put up for sale, including parks.

Severson and Councilman Russ Steeber said council members could analyze the list and possibly find parks that could benefit from partnerships with residents.

The list developed by city parks staff in 2011 recommends selling seven city parks.

This isn't the first time a council has talked about shedding parkland.

In 2001, a suggestion to sell River Valley Park was defeated because of neighborhood opposition. The parks department continues to recommend that park be sold.

In 2003, staff recommended eight parks be sold. The council took up the issue at a study session. No parkland was ever sold.

Councilman Sam Liebert said he has lived in Janesville for 23 years. Sometimes, he sees a park and had no idea the park was there, he said.

"There might just be a little path and a bench," Liebert said. "Maybe they are utilized a lot, but I don't know. When I see random parks, there's no one in them."

Steeber wondered if the council is creating future problems by requiring developers to set aside open spaces and parkland in their subdivisions.

"Are we taking and, by our own growth, enhancing the problem?" Steeber asked.

The 2013 parks budget is $1.5 million, $1.1 million of which is devoted to mowing 666 acres in 64 developed parks.

The 2013 budget adds $107,575 to the parks budget—a 9 percent increase—to deal with the infiltration of the emerald ash borer. The insect will likely destroy 30,000 trees in the city over the next three years. The cost to manage the destruction is expected to grow.

Of the $1.1 million in the 2013 grounds maintenance budget, labor is about $800,000, or about 85 percent of the budget, Presny, parks director, said.

The council in 2012 cut mowing to every eight days, and the parks department last summer hired six fewer seasonal employees.

Presny said noted that the reduced mowing might not have be noticeable after grass went dormant because of the drought.

Presny told council members the department had eight more full-time employees when he started working here 28 years ago.

The city purchased more efficient mowing equipment to reduce staff, Presny said. It cut weed control and geese management. It has increased its partnerships with volunteer groups that help maintain parks, Presny said.

In 2011, the department reduced a full-time employee by ceding upkeep to the American Legion of its baseball facility in Riverside Park.

Levitt lauded the community groups who help the city maintain its parks. Janesville could not offer the services it does without those groups, but several groups "feel the city's not coming forward enough," Levitt said. "It's kind of a balancing act."

Presny said the city has held back developing three parks, including the Northeast Regional Park, until surrounding subdivisions are at least 50 percent developed.

"For some, that can be quite a while," Presny said.

PARKS IN QUESTION

City staff for nearly a decade have recommended a handful of city parks be sold. A 2011 parks staff memo given to the city council at a council member's request Oct. 18 recommends the following parks be sold:

-- Greendale Park, 327 Greendale Drive. Two to three residential lots possible. The nearby daycare mows the lot and uses it for programming, so the land requires very little maintenance. Staff have been unable to locate title, so the property first must be offered to the heirs of the people who donated the land.

-- River Valley Park, 2300 Kellogg Ave. A previous suggestion to sell this park met with neighborhood opposition.

-- Southside Park, vacant land at the corner of Washington Street and Kellogg Avenue. The land was purchased for a fire station that was never built.

Park staff recommends the sale of the following park, but the city attorney's office advises against selling because a clear title cannot be conveyed:

-- Parker Park, 801 E. Court St. Three to five residential lots might be possible in the space. The park is a high maintenance area for parks staff.

-- Rushmore Park, 2012 Wolcott St. Four residential lots possible. Lustig Park is nearby.

-- Industrial Park at Rockport Road and Oakhill Avenue. This is a wooded setting surrounded by industrial buildings. The site has a history of illegal dumping. Land must be leveled for future construction.

-- Ardon Park, 2120 Refset Drive. The steep property is used for sledding. The city considered eliminating the park in 1998 but met with neighborhood opposition, especially because some see it as a buffer from the nearby mall. The city reduced mowing in 2010.

Park staff has no strong preference about:

-- Blackhawk Meadows Park, 460 Lexington Drive. It is a hillside prairie that provides sledding in the winter. Opposition is expected from neighbors. Many consider the park an extension of nearby Palmer Park. It was dedicated for park purposes in 1960. The city must offer the property to the heirs of the people who donated the land.



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