As director of the Tulsa Park and Recreation Department, Lucy Dolman understands that her decision to close seven of the city's community centers is not a popular one with most residents.
"I can't stress enough this is extremely painful," Dolman said of the closures, which took effect at the end of February. "Every day, we just hope we don't have to make any more cuts."
District 1 City Councilor Jack Henderson understands from whence Dolman is coming. In the six years he's served on the council, he said, he's watched the budget for Dolman's department be cut, cut and cut again as the city struggles to keep up with its other obligations.
The most recent budget reduction for the Park and Recreation Department--$436,000--left Dolman in a position where she felt she had no choice but to close the centers at Franklin Park, Hill Park, Manion Park, Maxwell Park, Springdale Park, Zeigler Park and Owen Park. Additionally, operating hours have been reduced at McClure Park. Four of those centers--Owen, Franklin, Hill and Zeigler--are located in Henderson's district. Nine community centers remain open.
"That's a recipe for disaster," he said. "I just hope people see that and understand that."
Worried about what the closure of those facilities will mean for young people in his district throughout the coming months, Henderson wants to put an end to the city's habit of asking its park department to continuously get along with less money.
"I don't want to see a long, hot summer," he said. "I know what happens when you don't have things for children to do that's structured."
So he's planning on asking his fellow councilors on Tuesday, March 9 to support his proposal for scheduling a vote of the people on the issue of approving a dedicated sales tax for public safety and parks.
"I've been against taxes my whole time on the council," Henderson said. "I've fought other taxes, but this is one I believe in. I have to go against the grain on this one."
Henderson's proposal would let Tulsa voters decide whether to approve a proposed one-cent sales tax that would be split between the police, fire and park departments. He estimates the tax--which would raise the overall sales tax in the city from 8.517 cents per dollar to 9.517 cents--would raise up to $67 million a year for the three departments.
Henderson said local companies, foundations and individuals have stepped up before to help the park department keep its pools open for the summer. But this situation requires a greater commitment from the community, he believes.
"It's a long-term fix, not a temporary fix," he said. "We've lived on the two-penny sales tax since 1983. That's a long time.
That two pennies has never changed, but we expect it to do the same amount of service now as it did back in '83, and that's not going to happen."
He sounded a note of urgency for his proposal.
"We've got to do something," Henderson said. "We can't afford to sit back and tell people it's going to get better. Play time is over. It's time to roll up our sleeves and get serious."
Henderson's proposal is likely to face rough sledding. Five councilors--John Eagleton, Rick Westcott, G.T. Bynum, Jim Mautino and Roscoe Turner--already have voiced their opposition to any sales tax increase, as has Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.
With Henderson needing five affirmative votes on the nine-member council to get his measure approved, that means he needs to change at least one mind to have any chance of success.
But cast against the backdrop of the community center closures, salary and benefits cuts at the Fire Department and layoffs at the Police Department, Henderson thinks Tulsa voters will be willing to pay a little more at the check-out line.
"I've heard from people all over the city, not just my district, tell me they would support that if we could guarantee that's how the money would be spent," he said.
Dolman would likely welcome a dedicated funding source for her department, especially in the wake of the community center closures. Such an infusion of money might permit her to reopen some or all of those facilities--a scenario that seems unlikely otherwise.
She indicated no decision has been made yet about the fate of the buildings.
"We're not sure," she said. "We talk about that a lot ... We've had partnerships (with community groups) in and out of a lot of them, some of which have been successful and some that have not been successful at all."
Six of the now-closed centers were being operated in partnership with private organizations, but Dolman said even those arrangements became impossible to continue with the latest round of budget cuts. The organizations that were operating the buildings had been paying the utility bills since September, but Dolman noted her department was still incurring other costs for the facilities--namely maintenance and capital costs--as long as they remained open.
And given the age of those facilities--all of which date from the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s--those costs were considerable, she said.
"They were no longer sustainable with the budget we have," she said. "We need to go back and see what we can actually afford to do. With this budget, this is what we can sustain."
Dolman said the partnerships that were in place were not enough to offset the financial drain the buildings were creating on her department.
"The utilities in these buildings are unbelievable because they're old, cavernous facilities," she said. "(Those groups) have to put down huge down payments, then pay a few thousand a month in utilities. Each one of them was just kind of scraping by. Just paying utilities alone, they were just scraping by--that wasn't even charging them rent."
Dolman said some of the buildings operated as partnerships were open only a few hours two or three days a week.
"If they're open only a couple of hours, you have to ask, when are they truly open to the public?" she said.
All of the buildings share the same kinds of problems, she said, with issues ranging from heating to plumbing to electrical shortcomings. Many of them have substantial capital needs, as well, Dolman said.
"Everything's falling apart at the same time," she said.
Dolman emphasized that a big part of her decision was based on how much money her department can save in the future by not operating the older buildings. She anticipates that figure could reach $1.3 million eventually.
Dolman also noted that the declining state of many of the facilities made them unattractive to some Tulsans.
"People want to take their children places with a little better amenities, and our places don't offer that," she said. "On the other hand, a lot of people who use our facilities are very loyal and get something out of them. It's a very emotional issue when you talk about closing any park land or pool."
Operating fewer centers will allow her department to do a better job with the facilities it has, she said.
"Nobody feels proud of a rec center that looks obsolete," she said. "People would feel better about having to manage fewer centers than more. We know we can do better with that. Everybody (in the department) is doing anywhere from two to seven functions just so they can have a job."
Dolman said the decision to close the centers was made in January, but she noted the issue didn't heat up until February because public attention was focused on the proposed cuts in the police and fire departments.
"Now everybody's focused on the rec centers," she said.
She said representatives of her department spent much of February trying to help groups that were using the closed community centers relocate to other facilities. Those groups ranged from exercise, gymnastics, martial arts and dance classes to seniors groups that met to play cards.
"We've been pretty successful in that," she said, though she noted that not every group affected by the closures took advantage of the new accommodations that were arranged.
Henderson was particularly disappointed by the closure of the center at Owen Park, 560 N. Maybelle Ave.
"We certainly need to try to find a way to keep Tulsa's oldest park open," he said. "We have people in those facilities, programs that are doing well. But the park department doesn't have enough money to pay employees to keep the buildings open."
Henderson fretted over speculation that the closed buildings could be demolished or sold. Dolman acknowledged a number of possibilities are being considered but added, "People need to understand that park land will still be there."
She indicated the process of deciding what to do with the closed centers likely will take some time.
"I cannot make any rash decisions," she said. "We need to sit down and explore all our options. We need to make sure those decisions benefit those facilities and are legally sound."
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