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Park's future in doubt

"South Kitsap Parks and Recreation District enters every fall and winter with little money to run on until the following spring, when its biggest revenue sources--adult softball leagues and a privately-operated batting cage--resume their seasons. With the annual budget shortfall comes talk about the hand-to-mouth future of popular South Kitsap Community Park.But this year may be worse. The district has stopped paying its only full-time employee and is worrying about how long it can keep going.Without a change of fortune, some officials say the district should consider dissolving--an option that district leaders don’t want.“If we go insolvent, our assets would be liquidated. Our primary asset, the park, would go to the highest bidder,” said Park Commissioner Alan Mazuti. He noted the 200-acre park at the corner of Jackson and Lund avenues could be developed for residential or commercial uses.Officials of Kitsap County, which does not manage the park but does handle some of the park district’s finances, say the park should continue as long as the district has enough money to support itself. If it doesn’t, then “there is talk about the real possibility that the district could have to dissolve itself,” said county Auditor Karen Flynn.Mazuti said the district started this week with about $1,000. That may be enough to pay utility bills through the winter, he said, but it won’t cover district manager Ben Howlett’s salary. Howlett has dropped off the payroll but is still working voluntarily.The district also can’t pay the approximately $13,000 bill from the county for conducting an election of park commissioners in Tuesday’s general election. “The budget picture is pretty bleak,” Howlett said.Park Commissioner Dave Schweigert said the district “can make it, but we have to tighten the budget. We need to do a better job of spending wisely.” Mazuti said the park won’t close. And he and others are hopeful for a turnaround.The district needs about $50,000 a year for its operations, which consist mostly of maintaining the ballfields and playgrounds at South Kitsap Community Park (and a tiny second park in Olalla known as Triangle Park) and a district office in Port Orchard. The biggest expense is the $30,000-a-year salary of the district manager, the only full-time employee. Ground crews and office assistants are employed seasonally.The district has never collected taxes, relying instead on user fees and business-associated income. Volunteer labor has been a cornerstone of the park’s existence, too.Voter-approved levies aren’t considered a viable option by many distsrict supporters. Except for one in 1979 that authorized purchase of the park land, park levies have flopped with voters. So, in search of new revenue, district officials are considering selling park “memberships” to families and individuals and soliciting donations from businesses.“We need to find a way to avoid having to face the same (funding) situation every year,” Howlett said.The county might help by initiating a bond measure to form a metropolitan park district encompassing all park programs, county and otherwise, said County Commissioner Chris Endresen.“None of the cities or the county have enough money to run their parks,” she said, adding cities would have to agree to a metro district for it it to work. The predicament is even worse with cuts that will be caused by the passage of Initiative 695, the auto license tabs measure.Flynn noted financial problems for small park districts aren’t unique to South Kitsap Parks. A district in the North Kitsap area folded for lack of money.It’s not fair for county taxpayers to foot the bill for the South Kitsap district’s election, even if just until the district has the money, Flynn said. More importantly, the county treasurer administers the district’s funds by receiving invoices and then issuing checks for payment. As long as there is enough money in the account, all is well. It’s when the well is almost empty that officials get worried, Flynn said.“The immediate concern (for the South Kitsap district) is the election costs, but it’s the long-range future that needs to be addressed,” Flynn said."

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