County supervisors weigh Park Authority changes

Prince William County government is considering taking over the Park Authority, or making it compete with private industry to run its fee-generated recreational facilities.

On Tuesday, the Board of County Supervisors heard a laundry list of options for restructuring the organization in the wake of cost overruns at Valley View Park in Brentsville.

The Park Authority is no small player on the financial scene. It owns 52 facilities comprising 3,043 acres with an assessed value of $74 million, and employs 139 full time employees, plus part-time and seasonal employees.

But an inability to finish projects on time and in budget, as well as break-even at its fee-generated facilities like water parks and golf courses, caused the Board of County Supervisors to question if the agency should remain autonomous.

Board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton, R-At large, took the lead proposing the county take it over. He suggested the now semi-independent agency become a part of county government. He asked county officials what it would take.

County government would assume all its debts — and all its revenues, Finance Director Chris Martino said.

No action was taken Tuesday, but the county is moving steadily toward greater management oversight. A joint meeting between the board and Park Authority is scheduled Nov. 26 to iron out the details.

The most vocal opponent of the take-over was Supervisor John D. Jenkins, D-Neabsco, who said he would “fight to the death the abolition of the Park Authority.”

Since 1977, the Park Authority has run its own day-to-day operations, and managed park projects, accounting to the Board of County Supervisors through the annual budget process.

A board of directors appointed by the Board of County Supervisors makes most policy decisions.

The Board of County Supervisors currently has no oversight of its project-specific spending, often finding out after the fact that park projects are over-budget and they must pay for it.

That was the case with Valley View Park, which was $2.4 million over budget. County taxpayers approved the park project through a bond referendum, but borrowing and extra allocations from the board left it short of funds to complete.

Most disturbing to some board members was that they found out unexpectedly two months ago the project could not be completed without deferring other projects countywide. They learned it through a quarterly report from another county official.

Most of the Park Authority’s budget is provided by the county. In fiscal 2003, $13.6 million of its $18.6 million budget will come from county tax support. The rest comes from fee-generated recreational facilities it manages.

“What we have is a very large investment in parks and recreation, and we’ve seen some serious issues regarding the use of taxpayer dollars,” Connaughton said.

The authority has faced a series of financial crises involving its construction projects, each time coming to the Board of County Supervisors for more money than was allocated in the annual budget.

Jenkins sounded the loudest defense. He said he could remember the days before the Park Authority when taxes had to be raised to pay for recreational facilities. Supervisor Ruth T. Griggs, R-Occoquan, said county residents are already paying for the facilities in user fees.

Some measures have already been taken to improve management. Park Authority Executive Director Peggy Thompson said she paid an independent consultant to assess the Park Authority’s weaknesses.

The study had not been shared with the Board of County Supervisors prior to Tuesday, but Thompson outlined some of its findings.

Among its criticisms was lack of a formal process for tracking projects, not having verified budgets for projects ahead of time and concerns about staffing. The report recommended the hiring of outside management services. Thompson announced recently she had hired a manager to oversee construction.

When asked which of the plans for restructuring she favored Thompson said the county should tick off the areas where it wants more control.

County Executive Craig Gerhart presented the options for restructuring but said he does not favor taking over the Park Authority because of the amount of work it would entail.

He favors revisions to the 20-year old operating agreement between the board and Park Authority that would give the county more control over the planning, financing and building of capital projects.

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