By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
As the mercury rises, so is the heat on the Santa Rosa City Council to do something about city parks rapidly turning brown from lack of water.
The crispy condition of city parks was one of the hottest topics during the second day of the city budget hearings.
Assistant City Manager Jennifer Phillips told the council that the dry fall and unseasonably hot, dry spring have left the department well over its irrigation budget for the year, forcing it to cut back watering to a bare minimum in many parks.
“The water usage is up substantially, and we’re still not even able to keep things healthy,” Phillips told the council. “We have dry fields, dry dirt, the trees are struggling, the plants are struggling and the turf. So it’s very challenging.”
The department had budgeted $620,000 for park irrigation, but by the end of May already had spent more than $800,000.
It’s the third consecutive year that parks irrigation costs have come in over budget, exceeding expectations by nearly $500,000.
In an effort to break that trend, the council is considering adding $200,000 to next year’s budget, which it is set to be finalized today.
It’s unclear, however, just how much the extra funds will help. Even spending $1.2 million on irrigation wouldn’t be enough to make the parks “green and lush and fabulous,” but it would just be enough to help the plants be “relatively healthy and not stressed,” Phillips said.
The department has had to prioritize its irrigation of city parks, opting to keep the sprinklers on for fields and facilities that are rented out, while letting neighborhood parks dry up.
“You can’t have soccer tournaments, baseball tournaments with dead lawns. Park maintenance is a critical component of facility rental,” Phillips said. “Unfortunately some of the neighborhood parks are taking the brunt of the lack of irrigation.”
Keeping sports leagues coming to the city for tournaments is a department priority because they are both a revenue generator and have a positive impact on the overall economy.
Keeping the lawn lush at the DeTurk Round Barn, for example, makes economic sense because the city is trying to do a better job of marketing that recently renovated facility out for weddings, Phillips said.
But in many other parks, the irrigation systems are turned on just once a week to keep the sprinkler heads working.
A recent a visit to Bicentennial Park on Range Avenue illustrates just how scorched neighborhood parks are getting. Grass throughout the park is brown and brittle, and the ground is so dry that deep cracks have opened up.
The turf at Juilliard Park was nearly as parched Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s just sad it’s gotten so bad,” said Tony Scapeccia, a 40-year-old flooring contractor, as he walked his bike through the park. “It’s going to be dirt soon.”
One of the reasons the irrigation budget is under pressure is because the cost of water the city purchases from the Sonoma County Water Agency has been on the rise for years. The parks department also has been paying more for city-treated wastewater used at the Finley Community Center, the fields at A Play to Play and a small park in northwest Santa Rosa. The cost of that water has been phased in the over the past four years. In 2012, the department paid $189,000 for the recycled water, and this year the figure is expected to be higher.
While the lack of irrigation is one of the most visible symptoms of the department’s budget woes, there are other unmet maintenance needs, including general maintenance, garbage cleanup and graffiti removal.
At about 83 employees, the department has 39 fewer workers than it did in 2009, Phillips said.
She proposed at some point adding six new parks workers — one maintenance worker and five lower-paid groundskeepers — as a first step toward rebuilding that part of the department. The cost for those additional workers would be $393,000, but Phillips couldn’t say where that money would come from.
That set up some jousting between Councilwoman Julie Combs, who wanted the funds added immediately, and council members with other priorities.
“I think it’s very clear that this is needed,” Combs said. “I’d like to see them funded as soon as possible in this budget.”
But Mayor Scott Bartley stressed that they didn’t have enough information about where the money would come from. “I don’t want to shoot from the hip on something this important,” he said.
Councilman Ernesto Olivares also questioned whether parks maintenance would be the best use of scarce city funds.
“I know that our parks are valuable, but I’ll tell ya, if you find another $400,000 sitting around, I have some homeless people who could use it; I have some people living in substandard homes that could use it,” Olivares said.
Combs later sought to have the $400,000 held back from a $700,000 increase proposed for the Police Department, which is in line to receive six and a half additional positions. But only she and Gary Wysocky supported that proposal, which failed 5-2.
Combs also asked why the city couldn’t use funds from Measure O, the quarter-cent public safety and gang prevention sales tax, to fund graffiti removal.
“If we do tattoo removal through Measure O, it might be reasonable to do graffiti removal also,” she said.
City Manager Kathy Millison suggested the council instead give her 60 days to figure out how to fund new staff from other revenue sources or savings elsewhere, and the majority of the council agreed.