County cuts to recreation saddle towns with added costsWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
In the eyes of Canton’s town leaders, the status quo in recreation funding just isn’t cutting it.
For years, the town of Canton has had to maintain an aging public pool and has struggled to obtain stadium lighting to allow night games at the International Paper sports complex, which could cost as much as $400,000.
Yet since the start of the recession, the town has received not a penny from the county to support recreation. Residents from all over the county, not just within town limits, use town facilities like the pool in Canton and the recreation center in Waynesville. Yet town taxpayers are left footing much of the bill without county support.
That prompted Canton’s mayor, all four of its aldermen and its town manager to show up to the last Haywood county commissioners meeting, requesting that recreation funding not only be restored, but also that it be doled out fairly.
“We feel like we’re not getting all the funding that we’re possibly entitled to receive,” said Canton Alderman Kenneth Holland.
Until the recession struck, Haywood County annually sent $30,000 Canton’s way for recreation, while sending $70,000 to Waynesville for the same purpose.
But last year the county eliminated recreation contributions for Canton and Waynesville and has revealed no plans for restoring it.
“The needs have been great, but funds have been few,” said Canton Mayor Pat Smathers.
Canton leaders say they feel shortchanged geographically. The resolution that the Canton board formally presented alleged that there were few programs “if any” and no facilities operated by the county recreation department in Canton and the rest of eastern Haywood County.
On the other hand, the county has begun planning a $6.3 million sports complex in Jonathan Creek after already completing the first county-developed park in Allens Creek. Both projects are in western Haywood County.
Canton’s board of aldermen have requested that the county once again allocate funds to individual towns and school recreation programs, rather than to the county recreation department.
“At least on this end of the county, there’s a perception, ‘Hey, what’s the county rec department doing here?’” said Smathers.
But Claire Carleton, county recreation director, denied that there was any favoritism for the western half of Haywood.
“Each entity has got to stand up and prove their needs,” said Carleton. “No matter where they’re coming from, east, west, it doesn’t matter.”
While county commissioners were sympathetic to the Canton board’s request, they stressed that the recession has left their hands tied when it comes to appropriating funding for recreation.
As a Canton resident, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis is well aware of the town’s recreation needs, but he said the county is down to bare bones with the tough economy. Curtis also pointed out that the Town of Canton is “well-represented” on the county recreation board, which has a significant say in which projects the county moves forward with next.
“If there was money, I would stand up for the people of east Haywood,” added Curtis. “But I’m on both sides of the fence now, I can see both sides.”
Meanwhile, Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick emphasized that “contrary to popular belief,” no construction work had started on the Jonathan Creek park. Kirkpatrick also pointed out that in the past, the county supplied $321,000 to help construct the sports complex in Canton. Haywood County also transported fill from the Beaverdam Industrial Park to grade the sports complex at the county’s cost.
Commissioner Bill Upton said Canton is actually in the lead when it comes to having a complete sports complex. For now, the Jonathan Creek sports complex exists only on paper.
“If they ever get their lights, they’re way ahead,” said Upton.
Bridging the divide
Canton’s town leaders claim that 65 percent of the people who use the public pool in Canton come from outside town limits. Similarly, the town of Waynesville reports that about 70 percent of people who use its recreation center do not live in town.
Though user fees generate some revenue, town property taxes play a significant role in propping up both the Waynesville recreation center and Canton’s outdoor pool. In essence, town taxpayers are subsidizing those two facilities for the entire county.
The Town of Waynesville reports that it makes $695,000 operating the recreation department, including the recreation center. In contrast, the recreation department faces $2.2 million annually in expenses, from paying off debt on the recreation center to paying regular operating expenses. It’s up to town taxpayers to help make up the difference with $1.1 million of contributions from property taxes in the 2010-2011 town budget.
For now, Waynesville residents pay the same monthly fee as county residents at the recreation center, though town leaders have toyed with the idea of charging higher fees for county residents living outside town limits in the past. The idea has proven to be a logistical challenge.
“That becomes a total nightmare when someone’s coming in to check in,” said Wells Greeley, Waynesville alderman.
The easiest way to receive support from county taxpayers who live outside town limits was to receive direct funding from the county. With the total cut in recreation funding from the Haywood county taxpayers though, towns are now left to their own devices.
“It is a challenge every year to devote the money to our recreation, but it’s a vital part of every municipality in Haywood County,” said Greeley.
Carleton said while recreation is crucial for both the mental and physical health of citizens, most government officials see recreation as a non-essential service. The county recreation department has seen major funding cuts of its own since the recession hit.
“That’s just the way it’s always been, from the national level all the way down to Haywood County,” said Carleton. “It’s a widely known fact, the first thing that’s going to be cut is recreation.”
Carleton would not say what she thought was the best way to divvy up the recreation responsibilities among county and town recreation departments. But she added that the most important points are to not duplicate services and to work together.
Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown agreed that governments philosophically shouldn’t be competing with each other.
“I hate that east-west argument,” said Brown. “I thought we had got over it ... that kind of diatribe and that kind of mentality gets you nowhere.”
However, Brown said he, too, would like to see recreation funding restored to municipalities. More than that, he would like to see the county work more closely with the towns.
“If the county wants to be in recreation, it should sit down with everyone to decide how we want to spend the citizens’ money,” said Brown. “What we need to do is sit down and discuss things, and that’s not going on now. That is the biggest problem.”