Towns aim to preserve park funding

aspecht@newsobserver.comApril 27, 2013 

Several Wake County towns are lobbying state budget writers to preserve a program that funds municipal parks and recreation projects across North Carolina.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget cuts about $12 million, or 44 percent, of the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. The fund is supported by the excise tax on real estate transfers and divided among state parks, beach accesses and local governments, which receive 30 percent of the funding.

Under McCrory’s budget proposal, funds available to local governments would shrink to about $4.65 million from about $8 million this year. Wake County towns – Apex, Cary, Knightdale, Morrisville, Raleigh and Wake Forest – altogether account for about $2.5 million of $20.7 million requested by more than 60 local governments this year.

Local opponents of McCrory’s proposal say the funds are especially critical to the Triangle, which consistently ranks among the top places to live in the U.S. partially because of its recreation offerings. Since the fund’s inception in 1994, it has provided more than $161 million through 722 grants to 370 local governments.

The high demand for the parks funds “demonstrates across the state that there’s a huge unmet need for public parks and recreation facilities,” said Kathy Capps, grants and risk manager for Raleigh’s parks and recreation department.

Raleigh is requesting about $400,000 for the Sassafras All Children’s Playground it hopes to complete by 2016. Without the grant, though, “it could take a lot longer to build,” Capps said.

Crystal Feldman, the governor’s press secretary, says McCrory proposes moving the parks and recreation money into the general fund to increase transparency. Local governments can request funding for parks and recreation projects from the General Assembly, she said. If the projects are approved, they would be listed as line items in the state budget.

“We also need to address the more immediate needs for money in the general fund to pay for ever-increasing Medicaid cost overruns as well as public school enrollment and more teachers in the classroom,” Feldman wrote in an email.

Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen laughed at the notion that state lawmakers would grant funding for local government projects.

“It seems unlikely that municipalities would go to the current General Assembly to ask for money of any sort,” Killen said, “because we wouldn’t get it.”

Knightdale applied for $400,000 to help pay for phase two of a 70-acre park in its downtown. Killen worries shrinking the pot of available funds gives bigger towns an unfair advantage for continued growth and economic development.

“A lot of the jobs come to places with parks and recreation opportunities,” Killen said, noting rapid growth in Cary and Raleigh. “Now we’re at the point where we need to grow (economically), and the funding won’t be there.”

In Wake County alone, Knightdale is competing with five other towns.

Apex requested $500,000 for a 160-acre nature park off Evans Road scheduled to open in 2014. Cary applied for $500,000 to help fund 20 acres of the 51-acre Bartley Park that Cary aims to open on Penny Road in 2016. Morrisville seeks $500,000 for a 25-acre park it’s planning for at the corner of McCrimmon Parkway and Church Street. Wake Forest applied for $137,000 for help upgrading Taylor Street Park within the next three years.

Next year, Garner is counting on applying for and receiving $500,000 to help fund a $7.8 million recreation center planned for downtown, said Hardin Watkins, Garner town manager. If the parks pot shrinks, Garner may have to rethink its plans.

“It’s really frustrating, because it’s been great seed money and I don’t get the thinking behind cutting it,” Watkins said. “This is one of the best uses of capital dollars that’s out there.”

Staff writers Aliana Ramos and Kyle Jahner contributed.

Specht: 919-829-4826

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