Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

TOP STORY >>Cabot likely will bail out broke parks department

By HEATHER HARTSELL
Leader staff writer

The Cabot City Council will hold a special meeting Thursday, Jan. 10 to appropriate $100,000 from the general fund to bail out the parks department, which will have more bills due in the first month of 2008 than income to pay them.

Parks Director Carroll Astin met with the city council budget committee Thursday night to explain why his department is $100,000 over budget for 2007. Astin told the committee that about $75,000 of the shortfall was due to expenses at the new community center and about $25,000 was from the excessive number of ball tournaments over the summer.

Astin said he estimated the electric bill too low for the community center, which has now completed its first year in operation, charged too little for the programs there and hired too many fulltime employees.

There is little that can be done about the electric bill, but Astin said that since August, he has raised some prices for the programs offered at the center and reduced his full-time staff from nine to six.

Alderman Ed Long, who is not on the budget committee but did attend the meeting, told Astin that the parks commission should consider charging rent to the ball associations that use the city ball fields for tournaments. The Parks Department has to pay for the lights at the fields and provide staff to tend to the fields, so it is only fair that the associations pay rent, he said.

Astin suggested instead that parks should charge a $1 gate fee for tournaments, something that has not been done in the past. That alone would make up for the shortfall, he said.

“With the service we’re providing, we need that extra dollar on Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Astin told the budget committee.

Cabot parks have been run by a commission for almost a decade, and the council members who attended the budget committee meeting said they had no intention of changing that.

They only wanted to understand what caused the shortfall and what Astin and the commission will do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“The last thing I want to see is the city council in your business,” Alderman Ken Williams said. “But when we have to appropriate $100,000, we’re there. We need to fix the problem and get on with next year.”

Alderman Teri Miessner ag-reed. “We wanted a community center. Now we’ve got to figure out how to manage it,” she said.

The city council gives parks $250,000 annually to help cover expenses. The additional $100,000 will likely come from the $400,000 carryover in the general fund, council members said.

The cash problem in the parks department is similar to the one the city council faced a year ago when the Cabot Water and Wastewater Commission had to bail the general fund out with a $240,000 contribution after it was discovered that the city was $37,000 in the red.

Alderman Eddie Cook, chairman of the budget committee, asked Astin to attend another committee meeting Jan. 7 to explain the situation to the mayor and the council members who didn’t attend Thursday’s meeting.

Cook emphasized that he thinks the parks commission and the water and wastewater commission do a good job and that there is no talk of the council taking control away from either one.

The five council members who attended the committee meeting called the special Jan. 10 council meeting. City Attorney Jim Taylor said after the meeting that he would have the appropriation ordinance prepared for the council to vote on at that time.