Board blasts Park Authority

During more than an hour of public apology and promises to correct mismanagement at Prince William County’s Park Authority, executive director Peggy Thompson explained millions in cost overruns at Valley View Park.

The park on Valley View Drive in Bristow was originally to cost $3 million, then last year rose to $4.4 million, but is now expected to cost taxpayers $5.4 million.

The project was approved by the voters in a 1998 bond, and includes five lighted softball fields, six soccer fields, a station for shade and two concession stands.

Thompson came armed with a full overview of costs, but the board was little placated, calling for County Executive Craig Gerhart to meet with Thompson and Park Authority Board members to devise a method of greater budgetary oversight.

The overruns mean the semi-independent authority will be subject to more county oversight.

The park authority receives part of its budget each year from the county and the rest is derived from user fees at its water parks, golf courses and other facilities.

The outcome of the latest crisis could be project-by-project oversight to insure the authority’s cost estimates are on target, board of supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton, R-at-large, said.

Even before the board made its move, Thompson suggested hiring an outside consultant to supervise projects, saying her staff does not have the expertise.

Thompson accepted full responsibility for contracting errors, lack of oversight, and particularly, lack of communication with the board of supervisors last year when the park authority knew Valley View would cost $1 million more than anticipated, but failed to tell the board of supervisors.

“We knew the price, $4.4 million, but the cost estimates [we gave the board] didn’t include soil and building costs,” she said.

Because Valley View is over budget, 14 other park projects, including many that were part of the 1998 bond, must be deferred for one year.

They include tennis court replacement at Locust Shade Park, Fairmont Park renovations and Turley Park lighting. School field renovations at Beville Middle, Montclair Elementary, and Antietam Elementary to name a few will also be deferred for a year.

Board members were irked that projects they anticipated in their districts were not going to be completed on time.

“The board gave you a vote of confidence, we sent over a nice chunk of change for capital maintenance, and it isn’t occurring,” Connaughton said.

“There’s been a problem in the past and even though I thought changes were occurring, they haven’t happened. We’re not looking at a problem in isolation, it’s a system problem,” he said.

In an unusual move, the board of supervisors last year authorized the park authority’s borrowing an additional $1.3 million to help finish the project.

But costs continued to spiral higher as design consultant Clough, Harbour & Associates changed the master plan to include an additional softball field and softball building.

The original 50-acre site at Braemar was planned for soccer only, but the design changed to a softball-soccer combination when 125 acres was proffered at Valley View.

The multi-sports complex was a response to citizen input, Thompson said, representing what citizens wanted at the time.

The original plan was to build only four softball fields.

The softball building estimated at $250,000 in 2000 was bid at $615, 975 in 2002. The soccer and softball fields were each also $300,000 over estimates.

Imported topsoil will cost $750,000 more than anticipated and changes to the softball building — namely its pentagon shape — were main factors in the cost overruns, Thompson said.

The authority did try to rebid projects when they came in too high and voluntarily scaled back some of the work. It also tried to act as general contractor but received little interest.

Some of the issues are controllable and others are not, she said.

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