Following some interest in going back to the previous district system for county recreation, a possible reversion that could mean some $400,000 in cost savings, the topic has at least brought about discussion.
No action has been taken, with the Sampson Board of Commissioners opting to keep the recreation department in its current state for now, but the matter is expected to receive some attention during further budget talks. Commissioners said recreation at the county level should continue, but left open the option to modify those offerings depending on the budget.
During a recent meeting, county manager Ed Causey said he had received inquiries from some in the Midway community about going back to a district system, through which the county allocated funds to four districts across Sampson.
“They got about $47,000 apiece,” said finance officer David Clack. “They got the same amount each.”
Causey said the County Recreation Advisory Board, with the exception of possibly the Midway representative — the board members on the board still represent various parts of the county — has not shared any desire to return to districts.
“It is my general feeling that the program as you have it now is working pretty well,” said Causey. “I have not heard from any other community inducating that they wanted another system. And even what (the county has) now is significantly reduced over what it was two or three years ago.”
The cost for the Sampson Recreation Department was around $900,000 just a few years ago but that was trimmed by approximately $300,000 leading up to the 2010-11 budget in an effort to cut costs and save the department.
A couple positions were frozen and rec district offices closed, with supervisors placed in a central rec facility in Clinton, saving utility costs, while the docket of programs was similarly scaled back to focus on key sports — basketball, football, baseball/softball — where there was the most participation.
While there was some discussion from county and city of Clinton officials of a possible merge, with the city to operate a central program funded by both local governments, nothing has come to fruition.
“It is my impression that since they have hired a full-time recreation director that they don’t have any particular interest in merging,” said Causey, noting that any consolidation could be limited to collaborations proving “mutually beneficial.”
Commissioner Albert Kirby asked whether there was a cost savings going back to the district system.
Four districts at roughly $50,000 in county funding apiece, purely from a cost standpoint, would be much less expensive than the current program, Clack noted.
“Yeah, that’s $200,000 versus $600,000,” Clack said. “We didn’t do anything (under the old program). We didn’t hire referees, we didn’t officiate games, we didn’t set rules.”
“They took their money and did that all on their own, right?” said Kirby. “So why in the world is it costing so much to have one, as opposed to breaking it down?”
Clack pointed to staff costs with the county operating recreation. Assistant manager Susan Holder said part of the problem with the old district system was the inequity, perceived and otherwise, in the scheduling of games and a matter of which entity — some districts were just a group of volunteers, another prospect that has been harder to come by — to cut checks to.
While the current recreation operation came at a higher price, it has also meant more consistency in maintaining rosters, setting schedules, playing games, adhering to rules and keeping up with equipment, Holder said. Paid staff members are able to pick up that slack where volunteers have been stretched thin.
“Volunteers tend to burn out after a while,” said Holder. “At the time we stopped doing (districts), there was a concern as to whether or not those volunteer efforts would be sustained.”
Causey also brought forward a request by recreation director Raymond Spell to move his status from part-time to full-time. The current salary of $26,796 would double to $53,592, along with an additional $4,500 for fringes for a total budgetary increase of $31,296.
Spell works alongside seven other employees — there are two unfunded positions, including the athletic director — and a number of other part-time workers, including referees, officials, etc.
“I would find it difficult to hold the budget if we went that way,” said Kirby. “What benefit would come from the full-time versus the part-time? I don’t see how you can justify it.”
Causey said he believes the director spends “significantly more hours” devoted to recreation matters than alloted by his part-time status. “I think if he stayed in that part-time position, he’s going to try to make it work,” said Causey, “but I do think he probably has some personal changes going on that would not allow him to do that long.”
The director’s position would not be necessary with the district system. Clack said there was no such position before.
“We’re getting to the point where I need to move into a budget development phase,” said Causey. “I would almost be inclined to say that we probably should move forward the way we have it. I do not think the Recreation Advisory Committee would recommend doing anything other than what we’re doing now.”
Board chairman Billy Lockamy said he has heard some talk about the possibility of recreation coming under the wing of school booster clubs.
“I’ve got grandchildren and three of them play in the Parks and Recreation (program), and I enjoy the games,” said Lockamy. “If it’s going to continue, we’re going to perhaps have to pay more or we’re going to have to back up and go a different way to keep it going. It’s a shame that the city school system has a recreation department, and the county can’t because we don’t have the money.”
Lockamy said the move could mean nearly 2 cents on the tax rate if recreation was axed completely, more than 1 cent if a reversion to district allocations took place. Even if a modification was made to recreation as it stands in Sampson, the county would still be responsible for maintaining Western District Park in Roseboro.
“We know what (recreation) is costing us,” said Lockamy. “I’m interested to hear what the community is willing to bring to the table.”
“At this point in time, realistically, I think your options are to continue the recreation department or discontinue the recreation department,” said Causey. “It would be hard to go through the process and be ready in June to have a budget.”
Commissioners said they believed the director’s position should stay as is for now, with future decisions to be made during budget talks. All agreed recreation should continue, but the form it would take remains to be seen.
“Just as we are contemplating salary increases for (county) employees, that we wait and look at the impact of the overall budget before we make a decision one way or the other,” said Kirby. “We’ll have a better idea exactly where we are once we flesh out more information from other departments. We may come up with some great ideas, and come up with money where we can hire him full-time.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.