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Budget-cut county parks pledge to ‘make it work’

– Visitors shouldn’t notice anything amiss in the programs and landscapes offered by Allen County’s four parks, but behind the scenes may be another story.

“We will continue to tweak and squeak to keep our parks going with the amount of dollars we have,” Parks Superintendent Jeff Baxter said Thursday after a county parks board meeting.

The county’s parks are Metea, Fox Island, Payton and Cook’s Landing. Baxter and his staff of seven maintain nearly 900 acres with 21 buildings, two beaches, 14 miles of trails, nature preserves and a sledding hill. When the crowds and seasons warrant it, the parks also employ between eight and 20 part-time employees.

The Allen County Council had proposed a cut of $8,436 to the parks’ overall 2013 budget of $474,404. Although Baxter appealed that decision in November, the seven-member council voted unanimously to cut the parks budget.

Council members and County Auditor Tera Klutz have said that park officials need to use some of the user fees to help balance their budget. Visitors pay $2 each for admittance fees, and that nonreverting fund currently totals $494,397.

“Sure it’s a healthy balance, but we look at it as our rainy day fund – same way the county uses their rainy day fund – in case we have a bad year or need it for capital projects,” Baxter said. “Many don’t realize is it has taken over 30 years to build that fund.”

The parks board doesn’t feel using the nonreverting funds to pay everyday operational expenses is a good idea, Baxter said.

With one bad year of West Nile virus or another natural catastrophe, the fund could easily be depleted, Baxter said.

In addition, there are about $3 million to $8 million worth of capital projects on a waiting list, Baxter said.

Immediate projects include a new roof on the nature center at Fox Island; new signage and accessible trails; boardwalk replacement and repair at Fox Island; a new playground at Metea and Payton; and a foot bridge across Cedar Creek at Metea to provide access to other portions of the property.

Some projects have already been completed or are underway.

“Every year, we get cut,” Baxter said, “but we manage.”

Whenever they can, park officials take advantage of the donated labor and skills of Ivy Tech construction students. The students have built sidewalks and a floor in one of the buildings and replaced three shelter roofs, Baxter said.

Last summer, budget cuts forced Baxter and his staff to condense seven weeks of camp into four weeks.

He said they will do the same thing this year.

“That was a case of turning lemons into lemonade,” Baxter said. “We provided a high-quality program to a lot of kids in a shorter amount of time.”

Baxter has worked for the county since 2007 and before that worked 21 years for Fort Wayne city parks.

The parks used to be open six days and closed one each week but are now open seven days a week.

“We don’t want to go back to closing one day,” he said. “We will do our best to make it work.”

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