By Ivan Raconteur
It was anything but fun and games when the Lester Prairie City Council and the park board squared off to discuss a proposed 17 percent increase in the park budget.
The council invited the park board to a budget meeting last Monday to discuss the board’s budget request, which Mayor Andy Heimerl said was high compared to the three or four percent increase requested by other city departments.
But, perhaps the larger issue, beyond the discussion of the current budget request, is the ongoing lack of understanding between the park board and the city concerning what funds are available in the park fund.
To begin the conversation, Council Member Bob Messer, who is the park board liaison, explained that the biggest increases are in areas such as the cost of heating the pool and capital outlay.
The capital outlay budget request increased from $20,000 last year to $41,000 in the proposed budget.
Of this amount, $10,000 would be used for Sunrise Nature Park, $10,000 would go toward the proposed downtown park, and $20,000 would be used for the City Park.
Heimerl asked what kinds of improvements the money would be used for.
Messer said repairs are needed to the dugouts and the fence at the Lester Prairie municipal field, the floors in the pool house, and the bathrooms in the concession stand.
Maintenance Supervisor Greg Mueller added that the city will also need to replace the pool drains at an estimated cost of $3,000.
Twenty thousand dollars is a big chunk all at once,” Heimerl commented.
“At the 2nd Avenue (City) park, a lot of the stuff is 40 years old,” Park Board Member Chris Schultz replied.
Heimerl said instead of just increasing the budget, the city should look to the Lester Prairie Booster Club to do some fundraising to pay for some of the items.
“We do do a lot of fundraising, and we also get a lot of free labor,” Schultz said. “Members of the park board, along with other members of the community, raised nearly $10,000 in the past year or so for a variety of city projects, including the sound system, batting net, and Scout Field,” he added.
Heimerl mentioned repairs to the storage shed at the park, and asked why the city should pay for maintenance when other groups, including the school and the Little League teams, use the shed.
“The Little League is part of the city. It is kids from the community who are participating,” Park Board Member Larry Roth said. “We could get rid of the Little League and the city could start a rec program and pay someone to run it,” he added. Roth is among the volunteers who run the Little League program.
Park Board Member Troy Feltmann, who also volunteers his time to run the program said the Little League has paid for the last couple of repairs that have been done on the shed.
“You need to get this information to the city council so people are aware of it, so they get credit for it,” Pawelk commented.
It was also noted that the lights at the field need repairs.
“The school gets more benefits from the lights than the city does,” Council Member Larry Hoof said.
“The field gets used four night per week during the summer for baseball and softball,” Roth replied.
Heimerl said the park fund expenditures budget this year was $171,635, and the proposed expenditure for 2009 is $200,725, which is an increase of more than $30,000.
“My goal is not to increase the taxes for the people, and this is going to do that,” Heimerl said.
Schultz said that the park board budget was higher, more than $191,000, before pool improvements were made in 2003, and have been cut significantly since then.
“We did do some nasty cutting on that park budget,” Park Board Member Eric Angvall said. Angvall was mayor at the time the cuts were made.
Schultz said he expects the park budget to be higher in the years ahead due to more people using the parks, more parks to maintain, and the need to replace or renovate aging equipment and structures.
Park Board Member Eric Angvall said it will be up to the council to decide whether it wants to maintain what the city already has or spend money on new parks.
Park board expresses confusion about funds
Differences in understanding became even more evident when the subject of available funds was discussed.
City Clerk Marilyn Pawelk said the city had a park fund balance of $107,674 as of July 31.
“That has to carry you through the rest of this year and the first part of next year until you get tax money in June. Anything you do comes out of that, including the new park,” Pawelk said.
“That is different than what was explained to me last year when we started looking into this,” Heimerl said. “We were told we had $140,000 and another $38,500 on top.”
Heimerl said that was his understanding when the council agreed to commit $40,000 to a new downtown park, plus another $10,000 per year for four years (note: these figures are not correct see below).
Pawelk said if the city council wants money put aside for specific items, the council should direct her to put the money into a certificate.
However, the minutes of the September 10, 2007 council meeting state, “Previously Clerk Pawelk informed the city council that of the park fund balance, $30,000 was earmarked for Sunrise Park and $38,000 was from park dedication fees paid mainly through the permit fees for homes in East Park Estates.”
The motion made during that meeting was, “To make $60,000 available for the downtown park project in 2008 from park fund reserves.”
Park board members have stated that it was their understanding that “park reserves,” “park dedication fees” and the “park budget” were separate items.
Pawelk said these are not separate, but are all combined in the park fund cash balance.
There is clearly a lack of understanding on the part of both the park board, which is responsible for recommending its budget, and the city council, which is responsible for approving the budget.
“I’ll be honest with you, we’re confused,” Schultz commented after the meeting.
There was also confusion about pool funds.
Heimerl asked if the city could use the interest from the Art Swichtenberg Pool Trust Fund for pool-related expenses.
Pawelk said it was her understanding that this fund (both principal and interest) could only be used for major pool improvements, not routine operating expenses or maintenance. Pawelk said she would have to check the trust papers to confirm this.
There is an additional $17,310 balance in pool donations that have been made over the years, and this could be used for pool expenses, Pawelk said.
Some park board members appeared surprised, and said they were not aware of this fund.
The council asked the park board to review its budget request again to determine where cuts can be made.
“We all want the same things. We just need to find a way to get there,” Heimerl said.
The council will need to approve the city’s preliminary budget during its Tuesday, Sept. 2 meeting.
Points of confusion clarified
The following notes may help to clarify some of the confusion related to the park budget.
• When the council agreed to make the $60,000 available for the downtown park project last September, the preliminary budget had already been approved. The money was never budgeted or otherwise set aside, it would have to be taken from other parts of the budget.
The confusion about this point seems to center on the fact that the park board and the city council thought there was a budget surplus of approximately $80,000. This is not the case. The $80,000 was the cash balance in the park fund at the time, and the $38,000 in park dedication funds was included in this balance.
Because this is a cash balance, it fluctuates up and down as revenue is received and expenditures are made, like a checkbook balance.
• The $17,300 in pool donations is not part of the Swichtenberg Pool trust, but, like the trust, it is set up as an investment and is earning interest in a certificate. These amounts are not part of the park budget or revenue reports.
• Pawelk clarified after the meeting that, although she said the cash balance ($107,674 at the end of July) would have to last the park board through June, more revenue is expected this year. The August pool revenue and the second half property taxes are not reflected in that number.