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Cash-strapped parks department causes headaches in Harvard

Published: Monday, Aug. 11, 2014 5:21 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014 12:04 a.m. CDT

HARVARD – Harvard officials are seeking solutions for a parks department they say has been bleeding the city's cash balance, but suggestions so far have been met with contention.

In the past three years, expenditures for the parks and recreation department have outweighed revenues by a combined $45,000, City Administrator Dave Nelson said.

"It's not huge dollars," he said. "It's one of those things where you can cover it for a bit, but we should come up with a way to get some long-term stability to the program."

Earlier this summer, the Parks and Recreation Committee opted not to grant a $750 fee waiver to the Harvard Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a move billed as a first step toward balancing the cash-strapped parks budget.

But the chamber's Executive Director Crystal Musgrove, who also serves on the City Council and parks committee, criticized the decision. She said fee waivers have helped the chamber keep fundraiser costs low through the years. Money raised at several chamber events helps feed the chamber and keep its prices for membership low – which helps the city as a whole, Musgrove said.

She has abstained from voting on the fee waivers because of her conflict of interest. But she said the parks committee acted unfairly in suddenly charging the chamber the $750 when other organizations have seen their fees waived this summer.

"If you're going to waive one, you should waive all of them," she said.

Alderman Mike Clarke, who serves on the parks committee, sees the decision as the beginning of a new normal. "We had talked about it for a couple of years now – the fact that we were allowing different organizations to use the parks for free when our parks budget was losing more and more money each year," he said. "We just decided that it was time to stop kicking the can down the road."

But in July – after the rodeo – the City Council voted to grant the chamber a waiver of fees for its Kelly Miller Circus event. Musgrove said she was told a day later that the City Council needed to approve the use of Milky Way Park in a separate measure.

Because the council's first meeting of the month was canceled, approval can't come until the Aug. 26 meeting – less than two weeks from the date of the circus.

"It doesn't give us enough time," Musgrove said. She was unsure whether the event would ultimately take place. As for the parks budget moving forward, Musgrove acknowledged the city needs to take steps to fix the issue. She said changes should start with an analysis of the budget before implementing fees.

Nelson has been instructed by the parks committee to develop for consideration a fee structure, which will include the city charging fees on area youth sports organizations for park use. At least one such organization showed up at a July parks meeting to argue against the fees, saying they already pour money into the parks by providing maintenance and taking steps like building restrooms and scoreboards.

Clarke said he wants to see a fee structure work hand-in-hand with parks budget cuts. Officials have talked about privatizing lawn mowing services and reducing the hours the lights are kept on at certain parks.

"Either we make our department financially viable, or we're going to have to start making some big-time cuts," Clarke said.

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