Youth programs would be eliminated and 13 employees would lose their jobs under a proposed $871,000 spending cut to Augusta’s recreation department.
The reduction, on the table as City Administrator Fred Russell looks for ways to trim $2.26 million from department budgets, affects five of the city's 16 recreation centers: Sand Hills, Carrie J. Mays, Diamond Lakes, Henry Brigham and Blythe.
The plan isn't to close the centers completely but to eliminate non-senior citizen programs and the tennis program at Diamond Lakes Regional Park, Recreation Director Tom Beck said.
Diamond Lakes tennis pro Geoff Norton said he was completely in the dark about plans to close the tennis pro shop and end lessons, leagues and sanctioned tournaments at the center's eight courts.
Tennis tournaments are “probably one of the busiest things that we do,” said Norton, who expects 200 kids at a tournament this weekend. He said he gave lessons or clinics “various days through the week.”
The center, part of the sprawling Hephzibah regional athletic complex, opened in 2009. Beck said eliminating its one full-time and two part-time employees will save Augusta $98,660.
In Blythe, Patricia Strakosch runs a bustling operation whose after-school programs are limited by which Richmond County school buses access the center.
The center offers a popular Masters Week day camp and is home to the Richmond County Board of Education's Junior ROTC Raider Team obstacle course, programs Strakosch said she can't imagine coming to an end. Beck listed both as consequences of eliminating two full-time employees there, with a resulting cost savings he put at $126,400.
The rural center provides a valuable community service and generates substantial revenue through concession sales during a Junior ROTC tournament, Strakosch said.
“It's services that taxpayers deserve,” she said.
At Carrie J. Mays Community Center, Director Jadorvis Stewart said he had heard that his center faced the elimination of three of its five full-time staff members because it was among the city's “lower performing” centers.
According to Beck's proposal, those personnel remaining at Carrie J. Mays, Blythe and Sand Hills have jobs connected with each center's provision of senior citizen meals, Meals on Wheels and senior activities.
Stewart said the city is just now completing a renovation of the center's outdoor basketball court, which would be closed to free play under Beck's proposal.
He thought the reductions were bad news for the inner-city center on 11th Avenue, which offers GED and etiquette programs for youths.
“It would be devastating for this community,” Stewart said. “Those that they're looking at closing are in predominantly black areas.”
Some center directors questioned the figures Beck presented, including revenue estimates. Three full-time staffers listed in city records as working at Sand Hills, Carrie J. Mays and Blythe actually work at other centers, according to management at each.
Less sympathetic was Commissioner Joe Jackson, whose District 6 contains no recreation facilities. He disagreed with Commissioner Corey Johnson's recent suggestion that the commission eliminate a 2012 cost-of-living adjustment for employees to keep the programs open.
“There comes a point in time that we have to take ownership, or we're going to wind up in the same position of some of these other municipalities – bankrupt,” Jackson said.
He acknowledged that some recent sales-tax funded projects, such as opening the tennis center two years ago, might have been mistakes.
“These are the discussions that we're having right now that we should have been having 15 years ago,” he said.
Jackson said the senior feeding programs were worth maintaining. He questioned the effect of ending the youth programs.
“Is it going to put more children on the street with guns? I don't think so,” he said.
The recreation cuts aren't the only ones on the table, but they're among the largest.
Also scheduled to be cut is the city's Engineering Department, which Russell recommended trim $335,665. Engineering Director Abie Ladson said the cut will leave his department at 59 percent staffed and affect its ability to maintain traffic signs, roads, bridges and sidewalks; its response to Augusta Cares work orders; and its ability to complete small in-house construction projects requested by commissioners.
Russell said he will seek direction about the cuts at a 3 p.m. called commission meeting today.