Mecklenburg parks rank last nationally. Advocates have a plan to change that.

Mecklenburg County needs to sharply increase the amount of money it spends on its park system or risk falling further behind the crush of a booming population that’s outstripping the availability of local green space.

That’s the message from local park advocates, who are lobbying the county commissioners for a dramatic increase in funding this year. The commissioners started a round of budget hearings this week, and will hash out the county’s spending plan over the next several months.

“It is a black and white issue. Parks and Rec deserves adequate funding this year,” said Heidi Pruess, chair of the county’s Park and Recreation Commission.

The advisory board completed a report this month that says the county Park and Recreation department budget has yet to recover from the aftermath of the 2009 economic crash and recession, and remains under-funded and under-staffed.

In fiscal 2009, a pre-recession budget, the county allocated $44.1 million for the Park & Recreation department, which had 456 full-time employees.

But two years later, as the full impact of the recession began eating into local budgets, the county slashed parks funding to just under $23 million. The number of full-time positions fell even more dramatically, to just 241.

The Park and Recreation budget has since rebounded, but remains below where it was before the recession, with an allocation of about $41 million for the current fiscal year. And there are 343 full-time employees, still more than 100 fewer than eight years ago. The staff also now includes 39 part-time employees.

“The county did take some time to recover from the recession. We know that,” said Pruess. “But we’ve taken our eye off the ball.”

The Park and Recreation Commission is asking the county to immediately fund a new master plan for parks, as well as hire additional staff to keep up with maintenance, programs and other needs for the parks. The Park and Recreation Commission also wants the county to accelerate funding for projects that were originally approved by voters in 2008 bond referenda but then delayed due to the recession.

little sugar
Want to improve access to Mecklenburg parks and rec offerings? Finish the greenway. T. Ortega Gaines ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Park and Recreation Director Lee Jones pointed out that the county has added more than 100 full-time employees to the park department since the staffing low point following the recession. The department also gets money in addition to its $41 million operating budget, such as $4.1 million in deferred maintenance spending in fiscal 2019.

“The county manager has increased operating and maintenance budgets,” Jones said in a statement.

County commissioner Elaine Powell, the board’s vice chair, said the county needs to spend more on its parks. A first-term commissioner, Powell was previously chair of the Park and Recreation Commission.

“If anyone’s paying attention to the loss of open space, you can see the county will be built out in 10 or 15 years,” she said. “There won’t be land available.”

“I don’t know how we could ignore it,” she said. “There’s a huge cost of inertia.”

Low national rankings

Charlotte has often fared poorly in rankings of parks, greenways and accessibility of outdoor spaces compared with its peer communities. Last year, the Trust for Public Land ranked Charlotte dead last out of 97 cities it studied for access to parks. Only 28 percent of residents live within a 10-minute walk to a park, the nonprofit said.

Another prominent greenway project ran into trouble this month, when Charlotte City Council learned that the Cross Charlotte Trail needs more than $77 million in additional funding to complete its full 26 miles. The trail, a city-county collaboration, is meant to span the city from one end to the other.

Pruess said the park advisory group’s report shows the number of staff at the Park and Recreation department is 80 positions below the national average for a county of Mecklenburg’s size. That results in real-world staffing challenges even as the number of park users grows, she said. For example, fewer employees must travel to a larger group of parks to unlock bathrooms at the beginning of the day and lock them at day’s end.

“The amount of growth that’s occurred and the speed it occurred is a little shocking to the system,” she said of Charlotte’s breakneck building boom.

Another issue is that many of the county’s plans from 2008 haven’t come to fruition. Voters approved $250 million worth of bonds to expand and improve the park system, but due to the recession, few of those bonds were issued and the county largely switched from issuing debt to paying for parks out of annual revenues.

That county’s capital improvement plan calls for $229 million to be spent from 2018 to 2023 on park projects. And $18.7 million worth of projects — including segments of the Briar Creek, Irwin Creek and Sugar Creek greenways, the Mallard Creek Recreation Center and improvements to Col. Francis Beatty Park — aren’t fully funded until at least 2024 under the county’s plan.

Pruess said that means some projects might not be completed until almost two decades after the 2008 bond approvals.

“We have unmet needs,” she said, describing questions she gets from the community. “Folks say, ‘Where is this greenway? Where is this park? Where are they?’”

At-large commissioner Pat Cotham said the county has to balance competing needs as it assesses its budget for the coming fiscal year. Mecklenburg funds services ranging from the sheriff’s office to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to the health department.

Mecklenburg’s current budget is $1.7 billion, and the county has started its budget hearings earlier than usual, before the first budget is proposed, to get a better sense of what the community wants.

Besides expanding the park system, Cotham said, more should be done to ensure that parks in different parts of the county meet similar standards. She said she was recently at Derita Creek Park and saw dirty swings and slides, peeling paint and damaged picnic tables. Although some of those conditions have since been fixed, Cotham said more should be done.

“If this were in Myers Park, it wouldn’t be like this,” Cotham said. “But because it’s here, that what happens.”

But the county has to take into account a wide range of needs when deciding what to fund, she said. Commissioners approved spending $9 million more on new pre-kindergarten classes last year as a step toward universal access. And the county increased its allocation to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools by $31 million. To cover the cost increases, Mecklenburg raised its property tax rate last year by 3/4 of a cent, or about $19 per year on a $250,000 home.

“It’s a fine line that we have to walk,” Cotham said. “We have to weigh all these different things.”

Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.