Fife City Council has put a pause on a plan to merge the city’s parks and aquatic programs into a single department. The change would fold that position’s duties into the task of the director of Aquatic Services. The merger could save about $139,000, largely from the elimination of the director of Parks and Recreation position as well as coming at a time when the city is in the final stages of hiring a new city manager. That could happen Monday.
The parks merger of the two departments into a single Parks & Aquatics Department would handle all recreational scheduling and programs by early fall and would shift park maintenance into Public Works, which already maintains other city-owned properties. The idea is to boost efficiency and save money.
“We are in belt-tightening mode,” City Manager Subir Mukerjee said, noting that the city has already closed its jail, left positions vacant, combined positions and eliminated management positions. “We have to do some major changes to our organization. We have done some significant things in the last few months, but we need to do more.”
The city faces a budget crunch, born from the trend of costs increasing faster than revenues, the loss of casino-impact funding from the Puyallup Tribe and the unpredictable future of state funding.
The merger idea arose during the July 11 council meeting when it was up for consideration. A parade of city residents, park users, park board members and city staff expressed their frustration over what they said was a lack of transparency about the plan and their fears about what impact the changes would have on parks programs. Many of them asked questions that were not readily answerable. The staff report on the proposed changes was just four paragraphs, but the resolution itself spanned six pages.
Current Parks Director Kurt Reuter said the plan was created without input from him or parks staff and fails to address alternatives or changes in the state budget picture, specifically about marijuana tax revenue to cities or the possibility of Fife instituting a Business and Occupation tax.
“We need this information to get a full budget picture,” he said.
Former Fife Parks Director Michael Lafreniere said a merger would affect customer service and the quality of the parks and seems ill planned since the merger includes a directive for a top-to-bottom review of parks programs for efficiencies.
“That seems to be a bit after the fact,” he said, noting that any cost-savings review should have been done before the plan to merge the departments was ever created.
Those concerns, as well as questions of their own, prompted council members to table the merger resolution until Aug. 8 to allow city staff to gather data about the proposed changes.
“I just think we need to vet this thing all the way,” Councilmember Pat Hulcey said.
One option is to delay the decision a few months to allow time for the new city manager to ponder the idea. Mukerjee is retiring no later than September. The council has already interviewed five candidates for his replacement. A selection could come as early as July 31. The special meeting in the Council Chambers will have a special session at 6 p.m. and an open meeting at 7 p.m., when the council could select a candidate for contract negotiations. Those candidates are: Kacey Duncan, currently the Deputy City Manager for the City of Salem, Ore.; Wade Farris, currently the City Administrator for the City of Othello; Hyun Kim, currently the finance director for the City of Boulder City, Nev.; and Henry Lawrence, currently the City Administrator for the City of Eagle Point, Ore.