Mecklenburg parks could get a big spending boost

Mecklenburg County is poised to substantially increase funding for its park system, after years of stagnating budgets and staff cuts following the 2008 recession.

County manager Dena Diorio’s proposed budget, released last week, includes a nearly $13 million boost to the Park and Recreation Department. That increase – almost one-third higher than current spending – would bring the department’s total funding to more than $51 million. Mecklenburg officials said that’s enough to finally restore the county’s park budget to pre-recession levels.

Park advocates have been saying for years that Mecklenburg needs to invest more to keep up with growth as the county’s population booms. Last year, the Trust for Public Land ranked Charlotte dead last out of 97 major U.S. cities in its annual ParkScore report. That placed Charlotte behind municipalities including Fresno, Mesa and Detroit for amount of, and access to, public parks and outdoor amenities.

“Definitely progress, and beyond what would have been traditionally requested,” Heidi Pruess, chair of the county’s Park & Recreation Commission, said of the budget proposal. She said she’s pleased the manager is recommending the addition of 39 staff at the department, which employs fewer full-time workers than in the late 2000s.

[Read more: Parks aren’t keeping pace with Charlotte’s growth]

Diorio told commissioners that the additional Park and Recreation staffing would support expansion and help the county get back to its previous staffing levels.

“The positions are to support new facilities coming online and to help close the post-recession staffing gap for park operations and maintenance, horticulture services and natural resources,” she said.

But Pruess said she’s concerned the manager’s proposed budget doesn’t contemplate a bond issue for buying more land, a key issue that advocates say Mecklenburg needs to consider. Land prices are going up and remaining green space is increasingly subject to development pressure, as more and more of the county is developed.

Diorio’s recommended budget also includes accelerating $30 million worth of capital funding for building greenways, with the goal of completing 30 more miles by 2023. The county has lagged its greenway construction goals significantly for decades, but the current master plan calls for completing an additional 268 miles of greenways over the next 30 years.

The $51 million total suggested Park and Recreation budget is roughly equivalent to the $44 million Mecklenburg allocated in 2009, adjusted for inflation. The county’s park budget plunged in the wake of the Great Recession, dropping to just under $27 million in 2011. That’s the year Mecklenburg eliminated 183 positions in the Park and Recreation Department.

Charlotte spends about $47 per resident on parks, according to the Trust for Public Land. That compares to almost $202 per resident in Raleigh, $66 in Greensboro and $68 in Durham. Charlotte’s spending per-resident is just under Winston-Salem (ranked 92nd), which spends about $48 per resident.

The manager’s recommended budget is just a starting point. Mecklenburg commissioners will debate the budget over the next month before adopting a final plan on June 4. They could raise or lower the amount of spending Diorio has recommended for parks.

There could be opposition to the higher budget, though commissioners have mostly indicated they’re comfortable with spending more this year.

The manager’s $1.9 billion total budget would be a 9 percent increase over the previous year, and property owners are already nervous over the 2019 revalution, which saw property values jump sharply throughout the county. The proposed budget includes a tax increase that would impact roughly two-thirds of homeowners and more than three-quarters of commercial property owners.

Diorio’s proposed budget also includes spending increases for other county priorities, such as $21 million for expanded Pre-K access, $11.2 million for a new low-income rent subsidy and $15.5 million for a 5.5 percent across-the-board pay raise for county employees.

Ribbon Walk Nature Preserve in northeast Charlotte. Photo: Ely Portillo