Monday, March 25, 2002

5 city parks in middle of budget battle

Council, board argue where to cut

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A budget dispute between Cincinnati City Council and the city's park board could result in the closing of five nature centers.

        If City Council does not restore a $250,200 cut to the parks, the park board has threatened to close Califor nia Woods, Burnet Woods in Corryville, Avon Woods in Paddock Hills, LaBoiteaux Woods in College Hill and Caldwell Nature Preserve in Carthage.

        The park board's position — and the resulting e-mail campaign to city officials urging them to restore the cut — has confounded City Council members.

        “What they're saying is, "We want you to make us the only agency in the city exempt from the last year's budget cuts,'” said Councilman Pat DeWine. “They're telling us the only thing they can think of to cut is this nature education program.”

        The back-and-forth budget battle has been brewing since November. John Shirey, then city manager, recommended cutting the Outdoor Nature Education program by $250,200 as part of $11.5 million in cuts to balance the 2002 budget.

        But the park board protested, and Councilman David Pepper put forward a proposal that allowed the parks to find somewhere else to cut the $250,200.

        The park board responded with proposed cuts that in cluded $144,570 for the city's Highway Greenspace program, which plants flowers and cleans along on- and off-ramps to Interstate 71 and Interstate 75. It's a politically popular program that City Council begged the park board to take on several years ago.

        City Council said no, and sent the issue back for the park board to once again find something else to cut.

        That action infuriated some members of the park board, and leads to a more basic issue: Who has control over the parks' $4.6 million annual operating budget? City Council has the ultimate budgetary authority, but the city's charter has always given the park board “control and management” of the parks.

        Marian Lindberg, president of the Board of Park Commissioners, resorted to circulating copies of that charter provision to City Council members. She said the city's parks — ranked some of the best in the country — have already borne the brunt of the budget ax.

        Park board members will state their case to council's Finance Committee April 1. And they'll bring allies on the board of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, which was prepared to spend $1.6 million to build a joint Trailside Nature Library Center at Burnet Woods. Without the funds to operate it, library officials say, they would shift the $1.6 million to construction of a new branch library in Reading.

        Some council members doubt that the cuts would

        require the park board to close the five nature centers completely.

        Parks Director Willie F. Carden Jr. did not return phone calls seeking an explanation of the impact of the cuts.

        But a memo he wrote to City Council spoke of the “devastation” the cuts would bring to the park system and its benefit to inner-city youth.

        And, in an emotional appeal to council members, he cited an anecdote: “A recent inner-city youth, accustomed to asphalt and brick, asked when visiting one of our nature centers, "Are we in another state?'”

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