County Parks Shore Up Budget in 20-Year Plan

By Beacon Staff

When municipal budgets get tight, programs like parks and recreation often lose funding first in favor of services like law enforcement and road maintenance. With recent cuts in the city of Kalispell’s Parks Department and Flathead County’s future budget projections looking bleak, the county’s parks and recreation department is working to get ahead.

For the first time in its history, the department is undertaking a 20-year master plan.

“We’re very concerned about what decisions the county commissioners might have to make with the slowdown of development, tighter economic times and federal funding cuts,” Jed Fisher, parks department director, said. “You bet they’re going to be looking at us, and we’re going to have to be creative about how to fund this department.”

The master plan will evaluate existing facilities and programs to decide recommendations and priorities for future park acquisitions, projects and services. More specifically, it will aim to address concerns regarding access to lakes and rivers, upgrading existing park facilities and meeting the demands of a growing population as well as, of course, possible funding options, Fisher said.

The county is also working on a master trails plan in conjunction with the project.

“We have 78 parks out there, some of which will never be developed because they’re on steep hills or marshy areas,” Fisher said. “We need to address the possibility, with a tight budget, of whether or not we should surplus some of these parks and use the money to improve ones the community wants to see improved.”

The parks board has hired consultants Kate McMahon of Applied Communications and Bruce Boody of Landscape Architects, both from Whitefish, to develop the plan. The process started in May with data gathering and fieldwork, and throughout the summer, the planning team has been meeting with park advisory boards to identify issues to be addressed in the plan.

In addition to input from those community boards, the department is holding a series of public meetings beginning this week. The first meeting was held Oct. 6 in Lakeside, while the last meeting will be at the Whitefish library Oct. 21. A preference survey will be available at meetings and posted on-line at www.appcom.net.

“We’re looking for ideas and direction from the public on what types of parks are most important,” McMahon said. “We want to know where they think our resources can go, and also ideas about how to grow those resources outside of the county’s funding.”

Rising costs have made it increasingly difficult for the county parks department to acquire and keep lands for public use. This summer, the county almost lost the Conrad Complex, a 27-acre sport facility with seven baseball fields located east of Woodland Park and probably the county’s most popular park, before agreeing to a higher-priced lease.

For the coming year, the department’s budget – comprised of monies from the county’s general fund and recreational fees – is about $420,000 to manage its recreational programs and nearly 80 parks. The department has approximately another $400,000 in cash-in-lieu-of-parks monies saved up from recent development, but as construction slows that revenue source is likely to dry up, Fisher said.

As part of the master plan, Fisher and the parks board hope to gauge public opinion on funding options like parks maintenance fees, mill levies or partnerships with other agencies and community groups. The plan will also offer more direction on how to appropriately spend those cash-in-lieu funds.

“A good parks system is a tremendous asset to the county,” Fisher said. “This plan will help us meet the need as this area continues to grow.”

Update: Flathead County Parks and Recreation Department has added a public involvement workshop for the Columbia Falls area. The meeting will be held Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. at the Columbia Falls City Hall.

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