Playground program could be cut in city

Another tough budget year begs the perennial question: Where’s the axe going to fall?

The City of Warren is once again facing the task of making ends meet, and expenditures remain higher than revenues. Inevitably, that means formulating city finances is a matter of figuring out where to spread the pain.

“Over the last several years, council has taken various cost-cutting measures,” City Manager Nancy Freenock said Thursday, citing program cuts, staff reductions and ongoing attrition. “We can keep increasing taxes, but that’s not sustainable in the long run. We can cut programs, but we have to look at what services we can. We have to keep plowing roads. We have to maintain the police department, the fire department. We have to look at the nice little things we provide and that’s the playground program and the pool. We’re at that point.”

The city is looking at drawing down from its ever-dwindling fund balance, essentially savings, again this year, a practice that’s become commonplace but, according to Freenock, that’s unsustainable as well.

“That fund isn’t always going to be there,” she said.

As a result, during this year’s budget process, the summer playground program is on the table.

According to Freenock, cutting the program would realize between $20,000 and $25,000 in savings to the city from personnel costs alone. She estimated an additional $5,000 in other savings could be realized from the cut.

“I would say there are some incidental savings that could be had,” she noted.

It’s not a measure city staff relish taking, but it may be a necessary one.

“I’m not in favor of cutting the playground program,” Freenock emphasized. “It gives the kids something to do, someplace to go. I grew up with a playground program.”

“From a standpoint of a parent, I would think to myself, for eight weeks, there’s somebody there,” City Parks and Recreation Director Mary Ann Nau said, citing both emergency situations and potential vandalism. “I think just having the staff there as guardians for the kids. So they’re doing something constructive rather than left to their own devices is a good thing.”

Freenock noted cutting the playground program won’t solve the city’s budget woes on its own.

“I guess the next thing we would look at is mowing,” she said. “For instance, Betts (Park) costs $1,000 to mow. We need to see whether we can cut back on that.”

Following Tuesday’s meeting of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, a proposal to charge a fee for reservation of bocce courts is being proposed.

Doubling the annual fee charged to the Warren County School District for the usage of tennis courts following completion of work at Beaty Park is also being proposed.

The city is also evaluating ways to lower costs at the pool while maintaining service.

“This is going to be a very tough budget year,” Freenock said. “Next year we have three union contracts to negotiate. We still don’t know how the Affordable Care Act is going to affect us. There are no easy fixes.”