Discussion expands into a desire for board members, council members to know more about Parks & Rec, city budgets in general.

    A sometimes heated discussion at a Park Board meeting late last week sort of morphed into a larger concern that some board members, whether they've been on the board for years like Larry Brekken, or are new to the board like Kristy Morris-Leas, don't feel entirely comfortable making Parks & Recreation-related decisions when they don't really know how the budget is put together each year.

    The discussion in the city hall conference room started when board member Michelle Christopherson, who chaired a task force in recent months that met several times to discuss new ways to market Crookston Sports Center in order to bring more events there when hockey and figure skating aren't dominating the schedule, questioned the direction taken by City Administrator Tony Chladek in recent weeks.

    The park board, CHEDA and city council, at a joint meeting in May, according to Christopherson's understanding, agreed to a short term plan of identifying a handful of events at the CSC that could be the easiest and most realistic to make happen. As for the long term, the plan was to look at the city's various budgets to see if any money could potentially be re-allocated to increase CSC marketing efforts. The long-term plan included the possibility of paying someone to market the facility.

    After the joint meeting, Chladek did some research on the costs of putting events on at the CSC and paying a full-time person to market the facility. He put a budget draft together that included a cost to the city in excess of $100,000 a year and presented it to the council at a recent Ways & Means Committee meeting. Council members saw the estimated costs and made it clear they didn’t want to invest that kind of money in marketing the facility.

    That led to the park board meeting last Thursday, at which Christopherson and other board members questioned Chladek's actions since the joint meeting in May.

    "You came up with a $150,000 budget, no wonder no one was interested," Brekken, the current park board chair, said.

    "We never talked about those kinds of dollars, we never talked about a budget, we never talked about a full-time position," added Nell DeBoer, a member of the task force.

    “We never talked about a job description or position expectations, either,” Christopherson said.    

    Some council members wondered why they were being brought into the fold at the May joint meeting in the first place, but park board member Mike Tiedemann said the task force was hoping to get maybe $15,000 or $20,000 to get started on a couple of events. "We were told over and over there was no money, so it was suggested to have a joint meeting," he said.

    Christopherson suggested reconvening the three groups one more time to revisit the issue, but the feeling around the table seemed to be that the task force and maybe the park board as a whole needs to fine-tune exactly what it would like to do next as far as adding events at the CSC and identifying cost estimates. Since city officials are about to embark on a detailed, comprehensive process of putting the 2014 budget together, Ward 1 Council Member Tom Jorgens said the timing is ideal for everyone, including him, to get educated on how the city budget is crafted.

    "The council didn't take action on Tony's numbers for marketing the CSC; we figured it was too high," Jorgens said. "But on the other side of the coin, I think the council members understand we have an issue we need to work on, and if we just turn our back on it, it doesn't make it better. I think there's a sentiment to be proactive about that. There may have been a misunderstanding about the scale and scope of what the task force was recommending, versus what Tony came up with."

    Chladek said the task force and/or park board need to "decide what exactly you want, identify resources and where you're short, and identify that and then the council will know where you're short."

    That triggered the discussion about park board members not knowing enough about the budget, or at least not knowing as much as they think they'd like to know, or should know.

    "That's the frustration, we never have any say in the budget," Brekken said. "We OK the budget, but we don't know what's in it. We've never gone through the budget since I've been here."

    Jorgens said the frustration is similar among council members, and it's his goal to change that, so that the council can potentially get a better grasp of what's working well in the budget process, what's maybe not working so well, and what could be done differently.

    "We look at the previous year's budget, we tweak it a little bit and we pass it," he said. "We never do that step where we ask if we're doing the right things, or should we be doing things differently. Are our priorities of a few years ago the same priorities today and in the future? If we don't ask those questions, I think we're being irresponsible. ...The lack of flexibility in the budget is crazy."

    Morris-Leas, newly appointed to the park board, said she feels like she goes to meetings and "we just make decisions." But she said she doesn't know enough about the budget to feel truly informed when it comes to making those decisions, or even to ask the appropriate questions beforehand. "I don't want to feel like an idiot," she said. “Like, why do we buy new playground equipment every single year?”

    Parks & Recreation Director Scott Riopelle said he could easily go through the "budget sheets" that drive the Parks & Recreation budget with board members. As for the city budget in general, the council will next month be strategizing in depth about the 2014 budget, and Jorgens said it would be a good thing if a detailed marketing vision for the CSC was in focus by then.