Controversies pale against need for Mill Creek levy


These are the best of times and the worst of times for Mahoning County’s sprawling Mill Creek MetroParks. As the 5,000-acre park district seeks voter approval next week for continued and slightly increased taxpayer support, it is improving and reinventing itself with a wide assortment of impressive improvement projects.

At the same time, however, it continues to reel from a barrage of negative volleys hurled its way over the past 17 months that has sullied its image and left some residents scratching their heads, considering a “no” vote on its combined 1.75-mill, 15-year renewal and 0.25-mill additional tax levy on the Mahoning County general election ballot next Tuesday.

To those doubters, we recommend they not allow short-term controversies to undermine long-term progress for the park system. The future of the park district over the next 15 years hangs in the balance of passage of this critically important property-tax levy.We therefore recommend county voters turn out en masse Tuesday to register their ongoing support for what is arguably the Mahoning Valley’s largest and finest natural asset.

SERIES OF MISSTEPS

To be sure, some missteps have given voters pause over the caliber of leadership governing the park system. The euthanizing of 238 geese in June 2014 without any public input or debate continues to leave a black eye on the park district and its leadership. A group called Save the Wildlife in Mill Creek Park formed in its aftermath and bases its opposition to the levy partly on that disturbing act.

Then last December, the board ran slipshod over Ohio’s open-meetings laws by agreeing to hire Aaron Young as executive director of the MetroParks behind closed doors. Fortunately, the board later reconvened a public meeting to validate that appointment and right its wrong.

Misfortune stained anew the image of the park four months ago when high E. coli levels in park wetlands triggered a mass fish kill in Lake Newport and forced closing the district’s three lakes for public use during the prime summer-recreation season. That catastrophe, stemming from overflows in the city’s aging sewage system, was decades in the making and cannot reasonably be pinned on park management.

Collectively, however, those incidents have injected into the park levy the most controversy of any of the three countywide tax issues on next week’s ballot. In the ongoing community conversation on the park, however, it is important to point out the lessons that adversity has taught park management.

For one, the park district is now committed to finding nonlethal means to manage its wildlife, board President Lou Schiavoni has said. Second, new park board members appointed this year show a commitment to transparency and accountability to the public, including adherence to the state’s open-meetings and public-records laws. Third, the park’s executive director and others are working closely with city, state and federal officials to address slowing the poisonous pollution of park lakes.

BIG RETURN ON INVESTMENT

When those issues are put aside, a simple cost-benefit analysis illustrates that property taxpayers get a big bang for the bucks they invest. Renewal of the levy and approval of the slight increase will cost the owner of a $100,000 home $59 per year or less than $5 per month. In return, they can be assured that the park will continue to receive the needed maintenance to preserve its image as the “Green Cathedral” while also getting many needed enhancements.

Between 2016 and 2030, if the levy is approved, park leaders plan to accomplish improvement projects at Ford Nature Center, the Lily Pond, the MetroParks Bikeway, the Wick Recreation Area, Fellows Riverside Gardens, Mill Creek Golf Course, the MetroParks Farm, Volney Rogers Field, Yellow Creek Lodge and Pioneer Pavilion.

Potential fallout from rejection of the levy, however, would be unthinkable. “If it isn’t ultimately approved, it has a devastating impact because $7 million out of our $10 million budget comes from that levy,” said Schiavoni, the park board president. “From limiting our police force to limiting some of the park functions, such as the cabins, to our farm activities – a lot of activities that are currently free would have to be eliminated’’ or come with a fee, he added.

For 119 years, Mill Creek MetroParks has stood proudly as a testament to this region’s commitment to preserving a large oasis of natural splendor. Responsible county voters will preserve that legacy with a yes vote on Issue 5 Tuesday.

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