Options for county recreation’s future on table

Chris Berendt Staff Writer

September 19, 2013

Four options for the future of Sampson County Parks and Recreation were laid on the table Tuesday night, outlining everything from a slight reduction in staff to the elimination of recreation services and programs altogether.

The Sampson County Board of Commissioners is expected to mull options in the coming weeks and months.

The board agreed earlier this year to meet each month to discuss pre-determined topics that drive the budget, setting aside two hours to consider topics that affect county operations and budget. The first meeting was Tuesday, at which the oft-talked about Recreation Department was one of the first items discussed.

During 2013-14 budget deliberations, county managerial staff was directed by the board to prepare and present at least one alternative that reduced the Parks and Recreation budget by $200,000. Multiple alternatives were put before commissioners, each with their corresponding advantages and disadvantages.

“I think the staff’s recommendation would be that we’re probably doing as good as we can do within the existing budget, but the question you have is much larger than that,” said county manager Ed Causey, who called what the Recreation Department is able to do “remarkable” on a limited budget. But he said the board would be tasked with looking at the bigger picture as part of the budget sessions.

“Some of your considerations are going to be bigger than what you would like to do for any individual budget item,” Causey said.

He noted the four options for the board’s consideration.

The first option would be to deliver Parks and Recreation services and programs at their current level on a countywide basis. Operations would be managed by county staff, with potential reductions in administrative staff. The elimination of the equivalent of one full-time position would bring savings of approximately $45,000.

The second option would be to deliver recreation services and programs on a district basis. Operations would be managed by municipal or non-profit entities and funded at a rate to be determined by the board. Minimal county staff — one director and one administrative position — would be retained to facilitate operations of district entities. Estimated savings would be determined by the amount the board chose to allocate to districts.

Fixed costs for retention of two staff members would be $123,000 and for maintenance of one county-owned park would be $20,000.

The third option would be to eliminate a single sport (football) and reduce county staff. That would include eliminating an Administrative Specialist II position, and reducing three superintendents and the maintenance director from full-time to part-time. Recreation director and assistant director would be the only full-time positions, and the maintenance of Weeks park in Newton Grove, as well as that of the school fields, would be discontinued.

Elimination of the football programming would result in savings of approximately $10,000, while the reduction in staffing would bring another $165,000 in savings, less the $20,000 cost to continue maintaining Western District Park.

The fourth and final option would be to provide no parks and recreation services whatsoever. The complete elimination of the department would free up $619,000, less any post-employment costs and the Western District Park maintenance of $20,000.

Recreation director Raymond Spell noted that the total budget for Sampson County Parks and Recreation is $618,971 for the 2013-14 year. For a population of 65,406, that equates to per capita spending of $9.46, putting it far below other counties and towns in the state. As a basis for comparison, Clinton Recreation and Parks had per capita spending of just over $100, according to 2011-12 numbers.

“We’re doing all that with $9.46 per capita,” sai Spell. “I think we’re living well within our means; we’re operating at a reasonable cost and I think we’re doing a whole lot with a little bit.”

Where sports in Sampson County cost $25 apiece, per-sport costs in other counties are at least double if not triple that cost.

“I admit that my understanding of the situation is so much different now than it was during budget deliberations,” said Commissioner Albert Kirby. “I did not fully appreciate the impact … the effect of not having certain portions of the county fully participating in athletics.”

He asked what would happen should the county go to a district system, a possibility he first broached during budget talks.

Spell said those districts where participation is not as prevalent — there is less involvement in the southern and eastern districts than there is in the northern and western — those districts would “fall off.”

“So the kids in the eastern and southern districts would be really devastated,” said Kirby.

“Yes, absolutely,” Spell replied.

Kirby asked Spell to expound on the negative impacts of a move to districts. Spell said there would not be enough children to sustain those districts that have less numbers, and it would be similarly difficult to find volunteers to assist districts that did have diminished returns in participation. There would also be questions as to money management, and equitable rules enforcement for athletics.

On the flip side, Kirby asked Spell’s opinion of the potential $400,000 in savings the county could see in a return to districts.

“I don’t think there is a $400,000 savings by doing that,” said Spell. “You’re going to end up having a mom-pop type volunteer program … where they’re going to do it as long as their kid is in the program. As soon as their kid has aged out, they’re going to drop it and another person is going to have to pick it up.”

Giving up a Recreation staff would mean knowledge and dedication to the program would be lost.

“Who steps up to do all that?” Spell said. “You’re going to have to go to a mom or a dad with a full-time job and say ‘here you go manage this for ‘x’ number of hours and report back to us how you’re spending your money and how your program will be run equitable for everybody in the district.”

Also, not having a recreation program would not necessarily mean a $400,000 or $600,000 more for the county to spend. If children do not have an extracurricular activity to occupy their time, there is more of a likelihood they get into trouble.

“One way or another, we are going to have to pay for these kids. If we don’t offer a recreation program, there are going to be kids that create mischief and trouble, because they’re going to have nothing else to do,” said Spell. “That just means more money that we’re going to have to spend in county government to support (juvenile crime prevention) programs. So we’re going to have to pick up the tab somewhere.”

Board chairman Billy Lockamy said the status of the Recreation Department concerns him as a grandparent. But he knows there are others without children or grandchildren that may not care as much.

Monica Tanner, a western district resident, has three children and said the recreation program is organized and provides structure to children. She and her husband, who coaches, are heavily involved in supporting youth athletics.

“The way I look at it is we’re keeping kids off the streets and keeping them off the streets,” said Tanner. “There are kids who are graduating this year and I’ve watched them grow up. (Rec sports) keeps them out of trouble and it keeps them busy. I don’t want to see them walking the streets. This is a good program and it’s a big family.”

Kirby said many do not like to pay higher taxes or fees, but are willing to do so if they feel they are getting a return on their money. He asked if Tanner and others were willing to pay higher rec fees if it came to that.

“They are our future,” said Tanner.

“Character is what we’re putting in these kids too, and they’re learning to believe in themselves,” said J.D. Suggs of the eastern district. “(Parks and Recreation) has an outstanding program and they have outstanding people. We are (getting our money’s worth) with Parks and Rec. I love the program. We’re giving these kids positive reinforcement and the Parks and Recreation staff is second to none.”

Steve Honrine has assisted the Recreation Department for more than a decade, even though he does not have children in the program himself. Honrine said children come into the start of seasons timid and unsure of themselves, but that evaporates quickly.

“By the end of the season, you work with them, and it fills up their confidence,” Honrine said. “You’re not going to produce a lot of major league ballplayers, but you’re going to produce confidence in themselves to do other things and carry on through life.”

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at