BY MICHAEL WALTON
— TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County's Parks and Recreation Department could be next on the chopping block as officials grapple with a budget deficit just shy of $1.5 million.
County commission members have strongly opposed a proposal put forward by county administrators last month to save $600,000 in 2014 through the elimination of several Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department positions, including five road patrol deputies. Commissioner Dan Lathrop offered a different target for deep budget cuts during a budget meeting last week: the parks department.
"When I look at what happens in the parks, I'd rather have the cops personally," Lathrop said. "When you look at this the tie should go to the (sheriff's) department and not the parks."
Commissioner Christine Maxbauer said several counties in Michigan have saved money in recent years by consolidating parks departments with other departments.
Grand Traverse County's Facilities Management Department could incorporate the parks department, Maxbauer said. Then the county board could cut the positions of Parks and Recreation Department Director Jason Jones and office manager Kristine Erickson without impacting county services.
Jones could not be reached for comment. Erickson said she's not a "media contact" for the parks department and declined comment.
Lathrop said the commission should also consider closing the Civic Center's Easling Pool, which is operated by the parks department.
County officials have talked off and on about closing the pool for the last decade. Commissioners more recently have said the Grand Traverse Bay YMCA pool slated to open next year will greatly reduce the need for a county-operated pool.
Parks and Recreation Commissioner William Dorrier opposed both closing the pool and reducing the parks department. He said Maxbauer has “constantly” threatened to close the pool and eliminate the parks department. He also said county board members favor cuts to the parks department over the sheriff's department because it's more likely to earn them votes.
"This really is sad," Dorrier said. "This is local politics at its worst.”
Maxbauer said she's always supported the pool and reducing the parks department administration, but not eliminating the department itself or the parks and recreation board.
"I would defy (Dorrier) to find a spot where I did," she said.
Maxbauer and Lathrop said axing the two administrator positions and consolidating the departments would not result in any shuttered parks or recreational programs run by county partners like Traverse Bay Area Youth Soccer.
County Finance Director Dean Bott said eliminating the parks director and office manager positions would save about $174,000 annually between salary, benefit and legacy costs. Closing the pool would save roughly $75,000 per year. Bott stressed board members have not settled on either decision.
Commissioners need to find about $900,000 in savings to close the 2014 budget gap, assuming county officials also successfully negotiate another $500,000 in savings through ongoing talks with some of the county's collective bargaining units, county Administrator Dave Benda said.
The commission will hold a budget meeting Thursday at 7 p.m. Several commissioners said board members might decide to analyze the entire budget line by line, looking for long-term structural savings.