Independent study takes Park Authority to task

Prince William County supervisors got their first look Tuesday night at an independent study of the Park Authority’s performance at a joint meeting of the Board of County Supervisors and the Park Authority board.

“I’ve only looked at the first two pages and it doesn’t look good,” said L. Ben Thompson, R-Brentsville.

Thompson has been one of the more vocal critics of the Park Authority’s $2.4 million shortfall in completing Valley View Park in his district.

“Do you or any of the (Park Authority) board members share responsibility for the huge cost overruns and if so, what are you going to do about it?” he asked.

Park Authority board Chairman Jim Johnson from the Coles district responded by saying it was the board, not executive director Peggy Thompson, that was responsible for approving the progress and funding of Valley View. The park grew in scope over time, increasing from four softball fields to five, with two concession stands instead of one.

Poor management of the Valley View project was just one of many deficiencies that came to light after an August study by Beidas & Associates Inc. consultants of Potomac Falls pinpointed other management flaws.

They included lack of a formal development process to be adopted by the Park Authority and disseminated to staff; general failure to follow standard project management principles — documentation, follow up and the use of a schedule for project control; deficiencies in the skill level of the staff; questionable decision-making with respect to project delivery methods and procurement strategy; and inconsistent leadership and management oversight of the planning and development division, to name a few.

The Tuesday meeting’s main thrust was to discuss ways the Park Authority could be restructured, after continued concerns from the Board of County Supervisors about its financial operations. The board must approve its borrowing as well as bond projects that go to the voters, so financial oversight has been a key concern.

About $13.3 million, or 50 percent of the Park Authority’s $26.7 million annual budget was provided by the county in fiscal 2003, the current budget year.

An overhaul of the agency by the board is under way, with options ranging from absorbing the Park Authority into county government, to rewriting the 1983 operating agreement between the two bodies.

Johnson offered whatever financial controls the county wanted — up to and including a public works official monitoring the cost and progress of projects.

As to Valley View, Johnson said the Park Authority had no alternative but to press ahead despite the overruns because money from the concession stands is needed to pay off the debt service.

Despite the turmoil, the Park Authority could point to some significant achievements this year. In 2003, it’s enterprise division — golf courses, waterparks, skating rinks and concessions which the authority operates for a fee — were expected to come within $13,000 of covering their cost and debt service, compared to 1999 when they required a $610,572 subsidy from the county.

Staff writer Diane Freda can be reached at (703) 878-4723.

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