By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Santa Rosa City Council chose not to hire six additional workers to clean up garbage, restrooms and graffiti in city parks Tuesday after an emotional debate pitted members who felt the extra staff was an urgent need against those seeking a more long-term solution.
The council voted 4-3 against spending $247,000 to hire one skilled maintenance worker and five groundskeepers to work on a temporary basis for the next nine months.
The proposal was recommended by parks department staff to appease council members who expressed disappointment during the last budget process that no funds were being dedicated to hiring additional parks maintenance staff.
Their disappointment deepened when it became clear a majority of their colleagues were against the measure.
“It’s a Band-Aid on an artery, but it will make a difference,” Councilman Gary Wysocky said. “Do we really want to just let (the money) sit in the checking account … or do we want to put it back into the community?”
But Mayor Scott Bartley argued that it wasn’t clear enough what the additional staff would accomplish and whether the city could support them the following year, potentially requiring them to be hired and laid off nine months later.
Funds for the additional staff were to come from money left over in the department’s budget at the end of the year, but it wouldn’t necessarily be available for the following fiscal year.
“If all we’re doing is buying some instant gratification that the parks are going to look good for six months, that isn’t doing it in the long-term for the community,” Bartley said. “It’s making us look good politically, but come next summer, we’re back in the same boat.”
The city parks and recreation department has shed 39 staff positions since 2009. Some functions have been outsourced to a private groundskeeping firm, but there is wide agreement that the maintenance of the city’s 66 parks has suffered substantially.
“I don’t think there is one person in this room that disagrees that we need to address these issues in some meaningful way,” City Manager Kathy Millison said.
But Millison signaled early on that she wasn’t thrilled with the idea of using one-time funds to hire additional staff, calling it “not a good management practice.”
“This is a stop-gap measure. There is no question about it,” Millison said.
She said she would prefer the department be allowed to study its needs further and make sustainable hiring decisions in the context of next year’s budget process.
Bartley agreed but took Millison to task for allowing parks staff to recommend one thing to the council while she recommended another. He said he was “puzzled and upset” and the contradictory recommendations.
“That is a really confusing mixed message,” Bartley said. “I don’t know why that wasn’t cleared up before it landed in front of us.”
It created, he said, an unnecessary conflict between council members and the impression that those who voted against the additional staff were against improving parks.
“None of us don’t want parks maintained. No one here wants the weeds to grow. No one wants the bathrooms not to be cleaned,” Bartley said. “And the way it’s been thrown in front of us, if you don’t support it, you’re against that. And that is absolutely not true.”
Voting against the additional staff were Bartley, Robin Swinth, Ernesto Olivares, and Jake Ours. Voting in favor were Wysocky, Councilwoman Julie Combs and Vice Mayor Erin Carlstrom.
Swinth, a mother of two who says she uses the parks all the time and wants to find solutions for improving their maintenance, said she, too, was frustrated to be asked mid-year to increase funding to one department without the city’s overall budget context.
“It’s a very high priority for me and I don’t like being in this position,” she said.
But she said she could not support dipping into city reserves, which help the city by improving its bond ratings. She wondered whether other needs, like leaky roofs, might be a higher priority, and asked Wysocky how he could justify spending the extra funds without understanding the needs of other city departments.
He stressed that the funds were unused by the department last year, and therefore were above and beyond what was budgeted for the current year. He also disputed the suggestion that the decision was outside the budget context because the issue came up then and was deferred.
“We are not giving the citizens what they expect for their parks. That’s how I justify it,” Wysocky said.
City parks maintenance worker Scott Enbysk told the council that parks were quickly deteriorating because of a lack of maintenance, and urged them to make a long-term commitment to investing in them.
“Please. Let’s rebuild this city,” Enbysk said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater.