Recreation department seeks $4.6 million more in budget

New Augusta Recreation, Parks and Facilities Director Robert Levine has some new initiatives in the works, but they come at a price: The department is asking for about $4.6 million more in the 2014 general fund budget.

The department is seeking $18.1 million to manage the city’s recreation programs, parks and facilities, including $581,730 to manage Augusta Municipal Golf Course. The total request is a 34 percent increase over its 2013 budget of $13.5 million.

Levine, during a budget presentation to three Augusta commissioners Thursday, said he included the golf course figure because the city “may very well be operating it” through the year. After several efforts to privatize the course failed, the commission voted earlier this year to seek more proposals from outside vendors, although a formal Request for Proposals hasn’t been issued. Levine said if kept in-house, the golf course could become self-sustaining in three years.

While the department overall is not self-sustaining, it does generate revenue, including $1.2 million in recreation program and event revenue during 2013, according to the presentation.

Sports events held at Diamond Lakes Regional Park, Augusta Aquatics Center and Newman Tennis Center had an economic impact of about $7.6 million, Levine said.

The programs and facilities also provided space for some 14,305 probationers to complete community service and 341 youth and part-time workers to get job experience.

“The things they learn are how to work, how to be on time, and how to provide customer service,” Levine said.

New additions to the programs included in the proposal are:

• An outdoor adventure program

• A mobile playground

• Increased training to prevent head injuries

• Criminal background checks for program volunteers and employees who work with the elderly

• The purchase, for $170,000, of two high-capacity rotary mowers that do three times the grass cutting and will free up four staffers to do more labor-intensive mowing of medians and parks

• Creation of mowing “districts” with set schedules and other landscape enhancements

• A “maintenance impact fee” of $1 per out-of-town participant

Asked by Commissioner Marion Williams about the potential for Augusta to create a regional water park such as Statesboro’s, Levine said the department had examined the options and found it might be better suited for a private developer. Statesboro spent $4 million on the park, with another $4 million from other sources, Levine said.

Commissioner Donnie Smith asked about potentially combining some of Augusta’s 69 parks.

“If we had 25 great parks, it’s better than having 69 half-maintained parks,” Smith said.

Levine said a recreation master plan in the works will examine the options. City Administrator Fred Russell said in the past commissioners didn’t want to give up a park in their district.

Recreation was not alone in seeking more money in the next fiscal year, which starts in January. Nearly all the departments that presented their budget requests Thursday wanted more, although few provided specific dollar amounts at the workshop.

Superior Court, for instance, needs $477,000 to remedy a problem with audio-visual conduits at the new courthouse.

Juvenile court will need at least $56,000 more than this year to implement legislative juvenile justice reforms, known as Children in Need of Services, or CHINS, according to Juvenile Court Judge Jennifer McKinzie.

The CHINS “are like the warning light on a car,” McKinzie said. “Some of the most important cases you will ever see.”

Commissioner Bill Fennoy repeated his concern about juvenile court’s lack of a black judge to sentence its majority-black juvenile clientele, but McKinzie said the department was color-blind.

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