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In a pair of memos obtained by the Landmark last week, Riverside Village Manager Peter Scalera has recommended folding the village’s Department of Parks and Recreation into the Public Works Department and Village President Michael Gorman has recommended restructuring the Parks and Recreation Commission into an advisory board that would no longer have statutory authority over park lands and the hiring of the recreation director.
The Landmark was given the two memos, marked “confidential,” on May 12 in response to a Freedom of Information request to Scalera.
The memos shed light on one aspect of the village board policy discussions planned for June 2 – the future of the recreation department in Riverside.
Scalera’s four-page memo to Gorman and the board of trustees dated May 7 reveals a recommendation to eliminate the recreation department as a stand-alone entity. Instead, recreation department employees would answer directly to the director of public works.
The plan calls for the hiring of a superintendent of parks and recreation, who would run the day-to-day recreation operations. Below that person would be a program coordinator and four part-time assistants.
By restructuring the department, Riverside will save an estimated $53,000 per year, according to the memo.
“Our goal is insuring that the operation of the department can move forward and improving on the services we provide,” said Scalera in a separate interview last week.
The Department of Parks and Recreation has seen its tax levy slashed in half in 2009 and 2010 as the village has sought to cut expenses. In 2008, the village board threatened eliminating the department all together before deciding on leaving it on life support through a diminished tax levy.
The decision to keep it intact was prompted in part by recreation department officials, who pitched a plan to the village board to make the department self-sustaining through recreation programming.
However, according to Scalera’s memo, the recreation department finished 2009 in the red by $27,637 and is expected to end 2010 almost $40,000 in the red.
Instead of leaving the recreation department levy as a single line item and an inviting target for elimination, Scalera has proposed moving the recreation levy to public works.
“Without the funding the department will not be sustainable,” Scalera wrote in his memo.
Moving the recreation department under the umbrella of public works would also provide organization efficiencies, especially with regard to seasonal workers. It also resolves permanently the question of who is responsible for maintaining park areas.
In 2009, public works took over the task of general field maintenance traditionally done by seasonal workers in the recreation department. Now seasonal workers can address whatever green-space maintenance needs there are village-wide, whether in designated park areas or otherwise.
“Rather than having separate departments that compete for the use of seasonals, we’ll have a bigger pool to plug in where they’re needed,” said Trustee Lonnie Sacchi, who said he had significant input into the restructuring plan.
“I had a lot of insight and input into it,” Sacchi said. “It grew out of the budget review. Last year every measure we took [to find savings in the budget] were one-time things. We wanted to find something longer term, and this was the big thing that stuck out.
“We want recreation to focus on programming, not cutting grass.”
What’s likely to provoke more discussion among village trustees and members of the Parks and Recreation Commission is the proposal to essentially dissolve the commission and re-form it as a recreation advisory committee.
In 1937, the village board created the Parks and Recreation Commission and granted it certain powers, including the authority to hire and fire the recreation director and oversight of designated parks lands.
Among the land under the commission’s control are Harrington Park, Leesley (also known as Blythe) Park, The Big Ball Park, Turtle Park, the Swan Pond floodplain, Indian Gardens park and the Scout Cabin, Patriots Park and the large, unnamed triangular park bounded by Longcommon, Evelyn and Downing roads.
The new arrangement would strip the recreation board of its hiring authority and its oversight of those parks.
“It would seem to me that the existing structure has served the village very well through the years,” said Frank Gangware, who is chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission and has served on that board for 11 years.
“There are checks and balances there,” said Gangware. “From my perspective, the parks and rec board is different than an advisory board set up for other areas of the village, because of the administrative area and the designation that we have stewardship for seven park areas.”
Gorman in an interview Friday said that the change would make the recreation board consistent with other advisory commissions in the village.
“We hold the village manager responsible for the operations of the village in total,” Gorman said. “It makes it difficult if you’re held responsible but can’t control the decisions taken.”
According to the 1937 statute, while the recreation board has certain authorities, expect for the hiring aspects, in almost all other decisions regarding parks, the board has to “consult” with the village board before. That goes for putting equipment in the parks or spending village dollars to enter into cooperative arrangements with school districts.
“I don’t want to control what happens in a park,” Gorman said. “Ultimately these come before the board anyway. Let’s have [interim park superintendent] Ron [Malchiodi] focus on what he’s really valuable at, and that’s focusing on programming.”
Sacchi stated emphatically that restructuring the commission was not a power play intended to rid the parks of playground equipment. As a columnist for the Landmark in 2001 and 2002, Sacchi cast a critical eye at such playground structures.
In a column on March 27, 2002, Sacchi called the creation of Patriots Park a “recreation department ego trip” and wrote a series of columns on the creation of a tot lot in the longcommon, what’s now known as Turtle Park. In one of those columns, on Sept. 18, 2002, Sacchi called the tot lot an “illegal expansion of the ball park.”
But in an interview Friday, Sacchi said any attempt to link the restructuring of the board with a wish to get rid of playgrounds was a “red herring.”
“The courts have held that recreation equipment is a permissible use; we honor that,” Sacchi said.
“No one has any intention of telling them to pack up their recreation equipment and go home.”
Instead, Sacchi said, the recreation department “is worth preserving, keeping and enhancing. This is a way to save them. This will preserve the tax levy and make them an integral part of a major department.”
But Ben Sells, who is the village board’s liaison to the Parks and Recreation Commission, says he’s not convinced there’s a need to restructure the commission.
“If you’re going to strip it of its authority over managing the charter parks, you have to have a compelling reason to do so, and I’m not hearing a compelling reason,” Sells said. “There’s no nexus between putting parks and rec under public works and getting rid of the rec board.
“The only substantive result of the entire plan is to strip the parks and rec board of its 70-plus-year authority over parks,” Sells added. “And the question is, ‘Why?'”
Sells also said he was not consulted about the changes proposed until the memos were sent out.
“I was not consulted at all; it’s my understanding that nobody was consulted,” Sells said. “This plan is Lonnie Sacchi and Mike Gorman’s plan.”
Gangware said that without the recreation board’s support Riverside might not have its two newest playgrounds – Patriots Park, christened in 2002 and Turtle Park, resurrected about a decade ago after the original tot lot equipment had been removed over time.
“I’m not certain that would have happened without our oversight,” Gangware said. “It was through the efforts of the parks and rec board that [the Turtle Park equipment] was put back there.”
Riverside Village Manager Peter Scalera has pointed out that his memo regarding restructuring the Department of Parks and Recreation is not a recommendation from him.
“I was asked to evaluate whether moving parks and rec under public works is feasible,” he said Wednesday. “It’s not a recommendation. The savings is realized either way, whether we move it or not.”
The savings of $53,000 annually is largely the result of former Recreation Director Laure Kosey leaving the position earlier this year.
Scalera also said that while it could be argued that putting parks and rec under the public works banner would result in efficiencies, particularly with respect to the use of seasonal employees, efficiencies could be made within parks and rec itself by assigning a seasonal worker to the department.
“My number one concern was ensuring operations are maintained in parks and rec,” Scalera said. “I was very aware of not making a recommendation. It’s totally up to the board to decide.”