THE ISSUE: The Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Department’s administrative future. THE IMPACT: Some city leaders say that changes are needed within the parks department, including abolishing the commission that governs it. Additionally, more money is needed for repairs at city parks and facilities. The state of a city’s parks facilities has a direct connection with quality of life and the local economy, studies have shown.

Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Commissioner Omar Allen objects to the Pine Bluff City Council considering legislation to abolish the Parks and Recreation Department Commission, fearing that some of the department’s 25 employees could lose their jobs.

“It is a possibility, especially some people in upper management,” Allen said. “Even if they were to take over today, they could fire everybody in the administrative office. They could get rid of everybody they wanted to get rid of.”

Some Pine Bluff City Council members contend that changes are needed at the parks department and that it would be a better fit under the city’s umbrella.

Alderman Lloyd Holcomb Jr. said of the issue:

“We’ve had some issues over the years that I have noticed. We just need to try to correct these issues. It’s nothing personal against anyone, we just want to move the city to a better situation. [The commission is] being funded by the city, and therefore having an advisory board by the city, I think we should have some input. With that being said, with things that have gone on in the recent past, there’s a change that needs to take place.”

The City Council considered voting on the issue at its regular meeting last Wednesday, but lack of unanimous support for an immediate vote scuttled the proposal. Instead, the council’s Public Works Committee will examine the proposed legislation to abolish the commission, then likely forward the legislation to the council for a vote.

On Thursday, Allen visited the city of Pine Bluff-owned Merrill Community Center, where teenagers were playing on the billiards tables and socializing. Allen said the tables are outdated and the kitchen floor is missing tiles. There are a menagerie of other problems at the facility as well.

Allen said he wants to repair this building to serve the youth and wished the City Council had allocated $400,000 from the five-eighths cent reserve in 2013 toward parks and recreation improvements.

City of Pine Bluff Finance Director Steve Miller said the $400,000 that had been earmarked for the parks department in 2013 is still in the city’s five-eighths cent reserve fund. The current balance of that fund is $631,008 as of June 30, 2017, he said.

The city’s contribution to the parks budget was increased to $808,120 in 2015 from $789,192 in 2014. In addition, $42,800 was added for operating expenses of the Saracen Landing Splash Park and $19,400 for operating expenses at Townsend Park in the 2015 budget.

“The City Council did not vote to approve the $400,000 appropriation [in 2013],” Miller said. “They did not disapprove it. They sent it back to the parks commission. The parks commission never approved it and sent it back to the council to be voted on. The parks commission at the time did not make a decision on it.”

Allen was not serving on the parks and recreation commission in 2013 and laments that lost chance to use $400,000.

“We are going to have our youth here; the conditions need to be a lot better,” Allen said. “Everyone runs their campaigns on what they are going to do for the youth but here is a facility that we do know at least 200 kids use per day.”

The Merrill Community Center lacks air conditioning in one room and needs to be repainted, he said.

Pine Bluff taxpayers spent a total of $1.4 million at Townsend Park to construct three new baseball fields. Two of the fields have lights. Allen said the third baseball field needs lights and estimates the cost would be $150,000 to $200,000 to install lights.

“I know the mayor and the council want to dissolve the commission because of certain concerns,” Allen said. “… If you are not going to invest proper funds to upgrade parks and have things we need to run our facilities and recreational programs, it does not matter who is over it. It is all about adequate funding. In the last 10 years, we took a 20 percent budget cut. Sixty to 70 percent of our budget goes toward salaries and the other part goes toward maintaining. We are not a money-maker.”

Several baseball leagues use the parks and recreation facilities yet they are not governed by the parks and recreation commission.

The Bloom Center used to host tennis tournaments and is now needing repairs to the roof and the tennis courts. Allen said he has spoken with Mayor Shirley Washington to voice his concerns.

“But we don’t have the capital funds to make those improvements,” Allen said.

The parks and recreation department has $840,597 in its 2017 budget.

PARKS HAVE IMPACT

According to a study by the National Recreation and Park Association, people living more than 1 kilometer away from a green space have nearly 50 percent higher odds of experiencing stress than those living less than 300 meters from a green space. Respondents who do not report stress have more than 50 percent higher odds of visiting a green space at least a few days a week than those reporting stress, the study showed.

Results also showed that the more often respondents visited green spaces, the less stress they experienced.

Several studies have confirmed that separation from nature is detrimental to human development, health and wellbeing, and that regular contact with nature is required for good mental health.

Parks are also a source of positive economic benefits, according to the American Planning Association.

They enhance property values, increase municipal revenue, bring in homebuyers and workers, and attract retirees. … Understanding the economic impacts of parks can help decision makers better evaluate the creation and maintenance of urban parks, the association says.

DIRECTOR SEARCH

The Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Department does not have a permanent director since then-director April Layher resigned June 1. The commission had suspended her May 16 without pay and accused her of violating federal law by failing to pay overtime to non-exempt employees. Layher denied the accusation, saying she had never intentionally violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. She called her suspension without pay “unjust and excessive.”

Trudy Redus, the former assistant director of the department, was appointed as interim director shortly after Layher resigned.

The Parks and Recreation Commission personnel committee met Wednesday, July 5, to review applicants for the open position of director. Allen said the committee reviewed the applications.

About 60 people applied to be the next director. One applicant lives in the Middle Eastern nation of Bahrain. Other applicants live in New Jersey, New York State, Michigan, Iowa, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Arkansas.

“We did not want to rush into anything,” Allen said.