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Charlotte Area News

Mecklenburg parks department considers 50% cut

A family enjoying time spent at Charlotte's Freedom Park.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Libraries will likely go through more cut backs beginning July 1 to plug a county budget shortfall that's now estimated at $85 million. County commissioners have received thousands of emails about library closures, but proposed cuts to the Park and Recreation have gone largely unnoticed. Just like the libraries the parks department could lose nearly half its budget next year - more than $17 million. WFAE's Lisa Miller looks at what that could mean for the county's parks: Mecklenburg County has nearly 18,000 acres of parks, greenways and nature preserves and not a whole lot of doors. "Now you can't close a park. A neighborhood, a community park just doesn't go away. So you have to manage these things," says Park and Recreation Director Jim Garges. Garges is surveying Freedom Park's pristine lake and grounds. It's clearly a green escape from the maze of homes and offices that surround it. Garges envisions a future that could mean losing $17 million in county money. "Will you see trash strewn all over the parks? No, you're not going to see it," says Garges. "Is it going to take a little bit longer to pick that trash up after a weekend? You might. A park like this you're actually working here, you know, 7 days a week." "Hey guys," says Garges as he waves to a couple of workers who ride by on a green maintenance vehicle. "If you don't it just looks bad," Garges continues. "Now, are we going to afford to do that in these cut backs? Probably not. So you're going to see things on the ground that you hadn't seen before." "I'm here to clean up basically after geese and whatever gets on here," says Andrew Tucker. In Freedom Park, think goose poop. Tucker's work for the day is scrubbing the dark green splotches off the park's sidewalks. He usually cleans the sidewalks once a week. "Typically, I usually go and do it more often in the summertime 'cause the geese come back and it gets really gross if you leave it for too long," explains Tucker. "But I'm getting cut back probably just like everyone else around here." That could be true. Garges says the brunt of the savings will likely come from park maintenance. That means clean-up contractors like Tucker won't be around much. Other savings could come from scaling back afterschool programs and adult activities and closing some of the park's 27 recreation centers. "Our budget will go back to what it was in 1996," says Garges. "Quite frankly that's before a lot of our bond issues for a lot of the new improvements were even passed. You might've had 10,000 acres verses 18,000 now." Looking out over Freedom Park, a short distance from his home, Robert FitzPatrick worries how these cutbacks will affect his neighborhood. He remembers when the parks didn't get the attention they do now and he has no interest in returning to those days. "We had buildings that were covered in graffiti and had trash and old equipment strewn around," says FitzPatrick. "We saw the landscape of the park quite deteriorated and water fountains not working." FitzPatrick hauls out a stack of photos he snapped after some of the park's big festivals then. They display tire tracks through the mud and whole swathes of lawn without any green grass. "This was just typical here," says FitzPatrick. "All that's quite different today. You'll see this is all beautifully landscaped, well-maintained today. But this is what it could go back to." FitzPatrick says people don't realize how much maintenance cuts could bring down the quality of life in Charlotte. "Libraries were iconic. Libraries meant something to people. Parks are in that same field, but because they're not being closed, they're just being cut back on maintenance people may not realize the loss," says FitzPatrick. At this point, the extent of that loss isn't clear. County Manager Harry Jones has asked the parks department to prepare for a 50 percent reduction next year. But county commissioners are still discussing next year's budget. Park-goer Andrea Honaker, says she values the parks' upkeep. "I love this one because it's so clean and the scenery is so pretty, especially now, says Honaker. "All the trees are blooming. It just seems they keep it really nice." She hopes it stays that way.