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J.P. Gallagher knows how some people in Butte view the Parks and Recreation department he has overseen here the past four years.

“You mow the grass, you fill the pool up, and in the winter, you sit around,” Gallagher said in characterizing that viewpoint to members of the Parks and Recreation Board.

They know better, but they’re sure most residents do not.

Most don’t know that the department’s 13 full-time workers and four seasonal ones mow and monitor 340 acres of developed park land and oversee more than 4,100 acres of open space at Thompson Park and Big Butte.

They’re responsible for 37 parks, three public mine yards, and the grounds around the Clark Chateau, Butte-Silver Bow Archives, Emergency Operations Center, and Jacobs House as well as the medians dividing Elizabeth Warren Avenue.

They maintain more than 60 miles of recreational trails, must plow 27 of the paved ones when it snows, and there are more miles coming soon.

They care for 23 baseball and softball fields almost every day they’re used, three “little guy” football fields, seven soccer fields, 20 horseshoe pits, 16 tennis courts, four volleyball courts, one wading pool, and one splash pad.

They clean and supply 24 restrooms, empty and line 144 trash cans all over town — three times a week in the summer — and fix 23 swing sets, 99 picnic tables, 52 benches, and 17 gazebos when needed.

In the winter, they plow 40 parking lots, including those at parks and all county government buildings, and clear all their sidewalks and sweep snow from eight ice rinks — with an ice-skating ribbon coming next year.

They hang all the Christmas decorations you see on light poles and county buildings, including those on the outside and interior of the courthouse.

That’s all on the maintenance side. They also prepare bids and contracts and manage more than 30 operating agreements with youth leagues, sports groups, the YMCA and other entities and play big logistical roles in festivals, concerts, and other events.

In the past five years, some big venues have been added, including a $2.5-million baseball stadium, a 57-acre park with Butte’s first “dog areas,” and the $8.7-million water park that opened this summer. Voters did give them an annual pot of money to operate and maintain the latter.

There’s more to come, too. In a year or two, the Basin Creek Reservoir is to be opened to the public so they can fish and canoe and picnic and walk 5 miles of trails that are part of the plan. 

“We are going to be asked to make sure we maintain that,” Gallagher said.

There are also hopes of creating a 120-acre "Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Park" with a 3,500-seat amphitheater in the middle of town after the polluted Parrot mine tailings are removed.

Gallagher and Parks Board members say the department and its employees are glad to do all this, but, simply put, they’re falling behind — especially on the maintenance side.

The department gets about $1.3 million from the county’s general fund — its primary checking account — and like all departments, personnel costs are the biggest expenditure.

It gets $50,000 a year from a Superfund account to help maintain reclaimed areas, which includes some trails, the Original mine yard, and the Copper Mountain Sports Complex. It gets another $50,000 in Greenway Trails district money to maintain some of the trails.

But Gallagher and board members say the resources are not matching the needs.

“We are giving them more and more parks to maintain, and there isn’t the manpower to do it,” said Bud Walker, a Butte-Silver Bow commissioner who also serves on the Parks Board. “They are not able to keep up with it.”

If that continues much longer, they say, there could be serious consequences.

Those could include closed or abandoned basketball and tennis courts, deteriorating parks trails, and playground equipment that becomes so unsafe it's a liability.

Some picnic tables and shelters could become unusable, irrigation systems won't get needed upgrades, and maintenance of neighborhood parks might be scrapped so basic fixes can continue at larger parks. Some park land might have to be sold.

Funding shortfalls?

Parks and Rec in Butte-Silver Bow falls under the umbrella of Public Works, something Gallagher and the Parks Board want to see changed for a variety of reasons.

Regardless, like other departments or divisions in the county, its overall funding has gone up in recent years, said Budget Director Danette Gleason.

Its allocations from the general fund totaled about $1.1 million in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, she said, but climbed to about $1.2 million last fiscal year, and nearly $1.3 million has been penciled in this year, she said.

Of the current $1.3 million, salaries and benefits account for $868,783, Gleason said, leaving about $431,000 for operations and maintenance. That includes about $175,000 for utility costs.

It gets $100,000 combined from the Superfund and Greenway accounts, and there are separate budgets for Sunset Memorial Cemetery, Highland View Golf Course, and the new water park.

Voters approved property tax levies of $350,000 annually to run and maintain the water park, and Gleason said the $5.5-million donation from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation and Montana Resources for major upgrades at Stodden Park requires that $550,000 be set aside for maintenance.

Parks and Rec, like other departments, also gets money for new vehicles. And all departments make pitches for more money each year, Gleason said, all with reasons to justify them.

But Gallagher says utilities eat up a big chunk of general fund dollars for operations, and there is only about $80,000 to fix things in most parks and pay for parts and equipment like weed eaters and blowers.

“We have two guys dedicated strictly to irrigation systems, and just irrigation probably eats up half that cost,” he said. “We are able to do our day-to-day tasks, but we are not able to fix things to the level they should be fixed.”

For example, he said, the roofs on the gazebos at Clark Park need replacing, but there isn’t the money to do it. One of the walking trail tunnels floods and had to be shut down because there isn’t the money needed to fix a pump and retaining walls.

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Some walking trails are in poor shape, he says. Sports courts need repairs, many of the irrigation systems are old and inefficient, and only some parks with play structures have sidewalks to meet mandated disability standards.

“I’m not trying to say ‘poor me,’” he told the Parks Board during a presentation last week, “but we need to start making a plan of working ourselves out of this maintenance nightmare.”

Pitching solutions

Gallagher plans to make a similar presentation to commissioners on Dec. 12, and together, he and the Parks Board are proposing two specific initial wishes.

First, they want an independent analysis — or master plan — of everything the department does and oversees to identify true needs and what it will take to address them. It would include all deferred maintenance needs and bringing them up to recognized standards.

“We can look at things and decide what is the most important in our eyes,” Gallagher said, “but this is someone coming in and looking at industry standards and saying this is what needs to be done."

Shawn Fredrickson, who became a commissioner this year and will take Walker’s place on the Parks Board in January, said he favors the idea because it would educate the council and public on what the department does and needs.

Gallagher and board members also want Parks and Rec to be its own stand-alone department instead of falling under Public Works.

It had moved that way in recent years, but in a recent restructuring of Public Works to include a new engineering division, county officials noted that parks falls under that same umbrella in the Butte-Silver Bow charter.

Amendments to the charter are possible through a citizen review process, and the next one is not due for several more years. But there are practical as well as symbolic reasons for seeking the change, Gallagher and board members say.

A separate department makes it easier to solicit and handle funding from outside sources such as private foundations or citizen groups, they say, because there isn’t a Public Works middleman. It could also make its own completely autonomous pitches for county tax dollars.

“I think being a sub at the table is different than being one of the knights of the round table,” said Cathy Tutty, a longtime member of the Parks Board. “It’s also just acknowledging the value of what is already there by making it a distinct department and empowering it (to) do what is needed.”

Gallagher says parks departments in Montana's other sizable cities stand alone and that has allowed the ones in Billings and Great Falls to establish voter-approved districts that get tax revenue just for deferred maintenance.

Fredrickson noted that parks will take on even more if plans for a new Silver Bow Creek park are realized.

“I think that parks having its own, independent department is the first logical step to improving our parks and keeping them maintained,” he said.

The presentation to council is slated for 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 12 on the third floor of the courthouse at 155 W. Granite St.

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Government and politics reporter

Reporter with emphasis on government and politics.

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