An unbudgeted item dominated much of the discussion regarding the Brainerd Parks and Recreation Department’s 2021 budget during a workshop Monday, Sept. 14.
North Brainerd’s Gregory Park fountain and its absence from the proposed budget became a focal point for council member Kelly Bevans, who represents that portion of the city.
The budget does, however, include a $100,000 request for matching funds from the city to build a splash pad at Memorial Park in northeast Brainerd. Bevans took issue with the inclusion of funds for the splash pad but not the fountain.
Two residents who organized efforts to fundraise for a splash pad four years ago asked the council last week to contribute up to $100,000 for the project, after volunteers already raised about $85,000 from community members. The council expressed general interest for the project, which was originally slated to happen in Gregory Park. But with Memorial Park already set to undergo a redesign process to recoup losses the city will suffer when its lease on Mill Avenue Park next year, parks board members incorporated the splash pad into the Memorial Park designs. If the city contributes the funds, the splash pad could be built as early as next year. If the group needs to continue fundraising, the parks board has committed to at least installing the underground work for the splash pad during the first phase of construction next year.
Bevans asked why the city should contribute to the splash pad when the fountain in Gregory Park needs work and is, in his words, pathetic. He said many constituents have asked him that question recently, with the splash pad coming forth as a discussion item again. When the splash pad was planned for Gregory Park, Bevans said the splash pad was supposed to be a community-funded project and said he recalled a council commitment not to use funds for the project until work on the fountain was complete.
“Well, the fountain is done, but arguably somewhat lacking and certainly nowhere near where it was before it had its latest catastrophe,” he said, noting there will likely be some resistance in the Gregory Park neighborhood if the city spends funds on the splash pad and not the fountain because that’s what he has heard from constituents.
Bevans said during a phone interview Tuesday, Sept. 15, he supports a splash pad and thinks it will fit well in Memorial Park but is more concerned with the timing. He doesn’t like the idea of the parks department starting a new project before finishing another one.
The fountain was essentially rebuilt in 2017, Parks Director Tony Sailer said over the phone Tuesday.
Issues at that time included burned out pumps, a cracked bowl leading to leaks, faulty and rusted pipes, lights knocked around by people wading in the fountain and faulty wiring.
The community fundraised $7,600 for the project, while the city kicked in about $54,000 more.
The new design, Sailer said, was supposed to prevent further tampering. The new grid the water shoots through encases the nuts and bolts below. Unfortunately, though, Sailer said people have figured out how to penetrate the grid and continue messing with the fountain’s inner workings.
In the past week, Sailer said people have dumped soap in the fountain three times, creating foam on the water. When that happens all the water has to be drained and replaced. Because the end of the summer season is approaching, staff decided to just shut the fountain off early this year instead of having to drain it again in a few weeks.
People continue to cause issues by wading in the water, Sailer said, despite signs prohibiting that.
Ideally, Bevans said he would like the fountain to be where it was about 10 years ago, with colored lights and more water shooting higher than it has been.
“It’s a beautiful, iconic centerpiece,” he said, comparing the fountain to the downtown water tower as something that greets those who come into town and is visible from the city’s main intersection at Sixth and Washington streets.
Bevans said he knows the fountain is important because he hears about it from residents and feels it’s his obligation to advocate for it.
“My concern is that we forget about what we’ve said in the past and what we’ve meant in the past and what we’ve committed to in the past,” he said. “And I think there’s more work that can be done on that fountain.”
Sailer said if the water shoots too high, the wind catches it, blowing water out of the fountain and preventing it from regenerating. And lights weren’t put in during the last remodel due partially to cost and to people messing with them too much.
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Sailer said he loves the fountain and would also like to see repairs to elevate it to the level it used to be, but it is costly and difficult to maintain with all the vandalism.
Parks Board Vice Chair Kevin Yeager, who was present Monday along with Chair Kara Schaefer, said he couldn’t speak to what was previously promised, as he wasn’t on the board at that time, but noted the fountain is one of several things in the parks system that needs to be looked at in the near future.
“We are beginning to identify that the ongoing maintenance of our parks has seemed to have slipped over the years. We know this,” he said, noting the parks board recently evaluated all the city parks, identifying things that need work and what they would like to see in the future.
“We’ve identified many, many, many needs through our parks, other than and including the fountain,” Yeager added. “So what I can say is that it’s something that we are absolutely looking at.”
Yeager also said he doesn’t see the splash pad as taking funds away from the fountain because the splash pad is part of the board’s overall vision of Memorial Park.
When Bevans reiterated that the fountain isn’t in the long-term capital improvement, which goes out until 2031, at all, Schaefer said there could still be money allocated for it.
Starting in 2022, the parks department’s capital improvement plan includes $25,000 a year for park upgrades and beautification.
“We’re forward thinking and wanting to set aside money each year for the park upgrades,” Schaefer said. “So for example, we save money for a couple years and have the money to add walking trails at Memorial Park or a new playground at Bane Park, or whatever is needed.”
Each year, the board would identify the specific projects those funds would be used for. Those funds, Schaefer said later, could be used for repairs to the Gregory Park fountain.
While Bevans said he is excited about what the parks board is doing right now, he will not support any increase in the parks budget unless the fountain is included.
In the budget
The proposed parks budget for 2021 requests just over $1.3 million in funds, an increase of $363,255 — or 38.58% — from 2020. Total operating costs are estimated at $935,931 for 2021, an increase of 4.8% over 2020.
Much of the increase, Schaefer said, comes from higher capital requests and the repair and maintenance fund, which requests funds for professional tree removal and the roofing/shingling of various parks facilities. Those added maintenance projects also drove up the supply budget by about $30,000.
The capital budget includes $469,000 in expenses, an increase from $48,600 in 2020. Schaefer said the 2020 capital budget was lower because the council bonded $1.3 million for Memorial Park, resulting in less funds needed from the parks board.
Programming expenses are projected to decrease by $8,451 in 2020, as many shirts and other supplies that were bought for 2020 programs were not used due to COVID-19 and will be used next year.
The parks department is in the running to receive funds from the Legislative-Citizen ‘Commission on Minnesota Resources in 2021 to build the Mississippi Landing Trailhead Park along East River Road, but Schaefer said those funds are not in the budget because they are not yet confirmed.
Council President Gabe Johnson thanked the parks board for being proactive in thinking about future capital needs, as that was not always the case when he served as council liaison to the board.
City Finance Director Connie Hillman told council members during the workshop they could approve the parks budget as is — including the splash pad funds — and not have to raise the tax levy past the 2-4% already being considered.
The city council is expected to approve a preliminary 2021 budget and tax levy at its next meeting Sept. 21 and will approve the final budget in December.