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Posted: April 12, 2011 7:23 p.m.

Recreation budget debated by county

The county has more recreational facilities than ever, adding a new park, basketball gym, community center and house for office space last year, but declining property tax revenues may force facilities to be closed or result in less upkeep.

The Newton County Recreation Commission is asking for a $300,000 increase to next fiscal year's budget to bring its budget to $2.1 million.

The commission added Denny Dobbs Park and Cousins Gym to its facilities last year, and will open another small park in Fairview Estates off Fairview Road this year. The commission was also given oversight of the Nelson Heights Community Center, and it purchased a house next to the Turner Lake Complex for administrative offices and meetings. The commission is responsible for 21 parks, playgrounds and various community facilities.

The request will be moot if the county's budgeted revenues drop by $2.6 million next fiscal year to $43.7 million. Cuts would likely come across the board. The commission's budget was cut by 5 percent last year, following a 20 percent cut the previous year.

Are recreational facilities and programs a luxury that should be cut during a struggling economy, or a necessity that provide residents with a free alternative to vacation and keep kids off the streets and out of trouble?

That's been a constant point of debate among commissioners and the public during the past couple of years. Recreation Commission Director Tommy Hailey said he's seen increased usage at many parks as families seek alternatives to going out of town. Since Denny Dobbs Park opened last fall, it's been heavily used.

At the same time, usage has not increased for the commission's youth and adult sport programs, which cost money to participate in. The recreation commission raised fees last year in an effort to raise revenues, and usage decreased by about 2 percent, Hailey said. Adult sports pay for themselves, while youth sports must be subsidized.

County Commissioner Nancy Schulz asked if the youth sports program could ever pay for itself. Hailey said he didn't think youth sports could ever pay for themselves, because if fees increase usage would decrease.

"If we go up on fees again, parents will bombard the place (to complain)," Hailey said Wednesday. "Right now, we're consistent with the metro area."

Hailey said the commission already contracts out basic maintenance for about five parks and could look at that option in more depth.

One suggestion which would raise the necessary funds, but is far from a certainty, would be to ask the city of Covington to contribute to recreation, since several parks are in the city limits.

Covington has not provided recreation funding since 2000, when it entered into an agreement with the county. The county was given control over the city's water production plants, so that it had complete control over wholesale water sales, but it had to assume recreation costs, City Manager Steve Horton said Wednesday.
The county will ask the city to contribute funding, but that will be up to the city council.

The recreation commission will get a boost from the 2011 SPLOST, which will provide $1 million to make park upgrades during the next six years.

The county must approve a budget before fiscal year 2012 begins on July 1.

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