Budget shrinks, upgrades sprout at Mill Creek park

Leaders of public agencies and keepers of the public purse throughout the Mahoning Valley need look no farther than the Mill Creek MetroParks system for a working model of efficient and fiscally responsible governance.

Earlier this month, the MetroParks board of commissioners adopted a 2018 general fund budget of $11.8 million for the sprawling 5,000-acre metropolitan park district. Executive Director Aaron Young served as a prime architect for that blueprint.

The budget features a pleasant surprise for taxpayers, many of whom have grown wearily accustomed to increase after increase in expenditures (and in tax burdens) for public agencies.

The surprise? The park district made cuts to both its overall general-fund appropriations and to total wages and salaries for its dozens of full- and part-time employees.

The MetroParks is forking out about $6 million for wages and salaries this year, compared with about $6.3 million in the 2016 budget and $6.2 million in the 2017 budget. That gradual but continuing downward slide should please taxpayers who finance park operations via a countywide tax levy on property they own.

“Salaries and wages were reduced by 3 percent as compared to 2017. That’s even after a 2 percent board-approved increase for all employees” granted two years ago, Young said.

How has the park district managed to shrink its salary budget without significantly reducing staff or harming overall park operations?

The reasoning offered by Young is simple and serves as sage advice to other managers of budgets for publicly funded institutions. Much of it results simply from sound and disciplined management. Specifically, Young said more vigilant efforts have been made to keep a closer watch on employees’ work hours to avoid unnecessary and costly overtime expenses.

That’s a priority that most private-sector companies have recognized for years as a means to maximize efficient operations and minimize unneeded expenditures. It’s also a priority that many more public entities at the local, state and federal levels should embrace.

Under Young’s leadership, the park district has downsized its fleet from 80 vehicles in 2015 to 63 today, a nearly 20 percent reduction without any noticeably strong public outcry over any shoddy maintenance of park properties.

IMPROVEMENTS WON’T SUFFER

In fact, the park’s focus on improvements to better serve the public keeps on growing even as the district works to keep a much tighter rein on spending.

The recently opened ice skating rink at the James L. Wick Recreation Area of the park rises as the first of many planned additions and capital improvements for this year.

“We’re looking to spend nearly $5.8 million on capital improvements [this year],” Young said,

Among the many projects on the drawing board include parking lot and trail improvements; restoration of the vintage wheel at Lanterman’s Mill; improvements to Lake Newport boat launch, Fellows Riverside Gardens, the north golf course, Scholl and Wick recreation areas, Mill Creek Wildlife Sanctuary and others.

A healthy chunk of park improvements will be financed by outside and private funding sources. For example, 80 percent of the $3.5 million cost of this year’s construction of the final phase of the MetroParks Bikeway will be paid for from grant awards and donations.

That aggressive push for revenue outside the local tax base is another practice all public-sector agencies should follow.

Overall, then, the park system finds itself in good stead this new year. In some circles, animosity still lingers over Young’s reorganization that resulted in the elimination of a dozen positions two years ago. Some also disagree with other directions Young has taken the district.

But most all would agree relationships between the community and the park system have improved considerably over the last 18 months. The park board has adopted a series of public-friendly protocols that better guarantee openness and transparency in park operations. That openness, coupled with increased attention to sound fiscal management, will go far toward ensuring MCMP remains one of this nation’s largest urban natural parks and one of this community’s most precious natural gems.

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