Proposal to put parks under library director in Fort Worth is raising questions

FORT WORTH -- A plan to merge the city's parks and library departments and put the library director in charge of both is drawing concern from some residents as officials prepare to have their first public discussion of the proposal today.

Few details have been released, but the proposed merger appears to put management of more than 200 parks and public spaces -- as well as items such as graffiti abatement, city golf courses and even the miniature train at Forest Park -- under the library department.

Gang intervention programs, city community centers, public tennis courts and the Fort Worth Zoo would also be under library supervision.

The plan could leave longtime Parks Director Richard Zavala, the historical curator at the Log Cabin Village and several other employees without jobs.

"No one is talking about this, and it's very concerning," said Sheila Hill, chairwoman of the volunteer Parks and Community Services Advisory Board, about the city's reluctance to discuss details. "It's difficult to understand why they think, as efficient and great as the library director is, why this could work without someone who is knowledgeable about parks," Hill said.

The advisory board has called an emergency meeting for this afternoon to discuss the plan to create the Library and Parks Community Services Department.

City officials say more information will be presented during a budget workshop at 9 a.m. today at City Hall, 1000 Throckmorton St.

"Over the next few weeks, I expect to hear about what some might consider drastic or draconian cutbacks," Mayor Mike Moncrief said last week. "But I caution all of us against overreacting until all the information is before us."

The proposal

City Manager Dale Fisseler has proposed a $1.3 billion budget for 2011 that would eliminate jobs, close three libraries and the one city pool still open, and slash funding for services ranging from health inspections to homeless aid. The city's property tax rate would stay at 85.5 cents per $100 of assessed value; water and sewer bills would go up 2.5 percent.

Fisseler gave some details of the merger in a budget letter to the City Council.

For the library, it talks about opening the Northwest Branch Library and closing the Meadowbrook, Northside and Ridglea branches, leaving the system with 12 facilities. Nearly 30 jobs will be cut through library closings and shrinking hours within the COOL and BOLD reading programs.

For the Parks and Community Services Department, the Forest Park pool would be closed and the city's aquatics program would end. More than 10 jobs would be cut, operations at the Botanic Garden would be reduced, and general fund support for the Summer Day Camp would end.

"Over the past several years, Fort Worth has made several consolidations as part of its overall strategy to meet the challenges posed by this very difficult economy," said Jason Lamers, a city spokesman. "The Parks and Community Services Department is focused on children and families, and our libraries are focused on serving the children and families of Fort Worth. We certainly acknowledge the different professions, but we also see some natural fits.

"The fact remains, however, that this is only a recommendation. The council has not made any final decisions on this subject, and the public dialogue will continue until Sept. 21, when the council is expected to consider the final budget document."

Phoenix experience

One major city to try consolidating parks and library departments is Phoenix.

There, city officials decided in 1977 to join the two and have the library report to the parks and recreation director. Phoenix Deputy City Manager Rick Naimark said the two departments maintained separate budgets. Ultimately, the "library continued to grow and develop its own mission and support structure," and city officials decided to split the departments again in 2001.

Fort Worth should take heed of the Phoenix example, local parks supporters say.

"Our libraries and parks are well-run, but I'm afraid merging libraries and parks is like taking a cat to the dog park," said attorney Jason Smith, president of the nonprofit Fort Worth Dog Park Association, which raises money to defray costs at the Fort Woof Dog Park. "Now is not the time to walk away from great parks for Fort Worth."

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

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