"Parks and Recreation" is a television show that spoofs small-town municipal government. Sometimes it is funny and fun to watch.
Recreation and Parks is a department in the municipal government of Santa Rosa. Right now, there's nothing fun or funny going on there.
As staff writer Kevin McCallum recently reported, the department budget has been cut so deeply it now must rely on citizen volunteers to maintain some neighborhood parks. And just as that news was sinking in, McCallum revealed that two of the department's top administrators for years received free rounds of golf and other perks from the financially struggling operator of the city-owned Bennett Valley Golf Course. Then today, he wrote about Mayor Scott Bartley's call for a full-blown audit of Parks and Recreation finances.
Bartley didn't bring up the issue of free golf for department managers when calling for the audit, but he did bring up "disquieting" items in the department's budget, including at least two "red flags" that popped up in a review of golf course finances:
- While the city is supposed to receive 15 percent of revenues from golf lessons at Bennett Valley, it was receiving nothing.
- A considerable number of rainchecks were issued to golfers in months when there was no rain.
And it's not just the golf course that has the mayor asking for answers from Recreation and Parks. He expressed concerns about funds going "from place to place" in the department budget, including a $200,000 shortfall for irrigation and the continuing delay in the repair of the large fish fountain that graces the entrance to the Prince Memorial Greenway across from City Hall.
"We budgeted money to fix it. Where is that money?" Bartley wondered.
Jennifer Phillips, who became interim head of the Recreation and Parks Department when the previous director and his top manager both retired in the wake of the free-golf investigation, told the council that the fountain repair money was used on other projects because the fountain also needs to have restrooms constructed nearby, for which the city has no funds budgeted.
So, one of the city's most visible recreational assets (and, when it worked, one of the most fun) stands high and dry outside of City Hall. And one of its most valuable (the golf course got a $9.6 million clubhouse in 2007) is giving away free golf, losing money and failing to pay the city its share for lessons.
Parks and recreation are supposed to be feel-good items in municipal government. But something tells me that even Leslie Knope, the slightly ditzy but amazingly successful lead character on the fictional "Parks and Recreation," would have a hard time recruiting volunteers to pull weeds in neighborhood parks when they find out what's going on elsewhere in the very real-life world of Santa Rosa's Recreation and Parks Department.
Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.