San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

January 25th, 2008
Too soon to panic

The Myth of Jones: A Column
Editor at Large

SAN MARCOS – Now that the Hays County Commissioners Court has approved $1.6 million to fund infrastructure and recreational facilities at a controversial project in San Marcos, questions arise about how the parks funding process will work going forward.

The bad news for the county is that the process so far has moved along slowly and contentiously. The county has approved two projects for $2.5 million of its $30 million in bond funds approved by voters last May. Depending on how one cuts the pie, about half to two-thirds of that $2.5 million is supporting athletic fields, which residents placed as a very low priority in the county’s official 2000 survey of local preferences for parks, open spaces and recreational facilities.

The good news is that $27.5 million in bonds remain to be disbursed. Plenty of room is left in those funds to bring future projects in line with surveyed preferences, which overwhelmingly named preservation of natural features, especially water features, as the highest priorities.

Difficult as it is, the process has forced improvements in the San Marcos project. The county’s system for scoring projects will be reviewed and advocates for future projects will have to realize the importance of matching funds.

At the very least, the San Marcos project is a special case bringing the larger issue of county parks funding into focus. Despite protests that most of the money will pay for infrastructure, the county approved the $1.6 million Tuesday to make football fields accessible for the Christian Federation of Police Officers-Police Athletic League (PAL) in San Marcos.

The PAL conducts a youth football league, using fields on land owned by the late Jim Neuhaus for the last nine years. Now, 2,500 kids participate in PAL programs, increasing 8-10 percent per year.

After Neuhaus died last July, the estate informed PAL the fields no longer would be available. PAL went to Commissioners Debbie Ingalsbe and Will Conley, who put the wheels in motion to produce new fields by August at the Village of San Marcos, a proposed social services complex on 29 acres at Reimer Avenue and Hunter Road.

The project required $1.1 million, mostly for infrastructure, as of December. However, the commissioners put the project on hold because it hadn’t been approved by the Citizens Parks Advisory Team (CPAT). Since then, the project has been upgraded by about $500,000 with multi-use nature trails, bird and wildlife observation facilities and an outdoor classroom. In addition, the project claimed $761,500 in matching funds at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Every time we’ve heard about this project, it has become a stronger, more recreation-oriented project,” said CPAT chairman Curt Busk, a Wimberley resident.

Busk and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton agreed that the improvements indicate that the process has merit, even if the project scored only 83 out of a possible 155 on CPAT’s scoring system. CPAT doesn’t even vote on a project unless it scores 105 or better.

The scoring process has come under fire in the last six weeks. Commissioners and citizens said Tuesday that it needs to be changed so it won’t reject projects like football fields for little kids or a development rights purchase of 2,400 acres on the Dahlstrom Ranch, which also fell short on the scoring criteria. With that said, CPAT calls for two very important requirements, which shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

First, CPAT wants to see matching funds, which is a crucial component of parks funding. The 2001 parks bond produced $3.5 million, which the county leveraged into about five times as much in matching funds. The program worked so well that voters easily approved another $30 million last May. County officials didn’t expect to leverage the $30 million with five times as much in matching funds this time, but nor are they keen on writing checks without significant matches. Indeed, the bond would flop if the county were to produce $30 million in parks for $30 million.

Second, CPAT is true to the county parks master plan, which is based on the 2000 survey. Eight years later, the survey might be vulnerable to criticism. The county has grown 35 percent to about 130,000 in the last eight years. If that survey were taken today, it might turn up different results. And surveys of adults are likely to mute the recreational desires of children, who need recreation but don’t vote or make policy. Not surprisingly, athletic facilities ranked low on the 2000 survey.

To illustrate, the study showed that 78 percent of residents said protecting aquifer recharge areas was extremely or very important, with 55 percent saying it’s extremely important. Also, 71 percent said acquiring buffer land along streams is extremely or very important, with 44 percent saying it’s extremely important. Acquiring park land along rivers and creeks was said to be extremely or very important by 68 percent of residents, with 38 percent saying it’s extremely important.

By contrast, only 31 percent said developing athletic complexes is extremely or very important, with only 12 percent saying it’s extremely important. Another 42 percent said it’s slightly important or not important, with 23 percent saying it’s not important.

The following also were ranked higher in importance than the development of athletic facilities: acquiring land along scenic roadways, acquiring park land to be left mostly natural, developing large parks with recreational facilities, and acquiring parks in existing cities.

So, athletic facilities is a very low priority. With that said, the desire for athletic facilities isn’t non-existent and the San Marcos project is a special case due to time sensitivity and it’s benefit for a popular, existing program, the absence of which would be keenly felt by thousands of families.

The county should be able to handle special cases without panic that the process is recklessly sacrificing broader parks priorities. With $27.5 million left in the till, the county still has plenty left to proportionately meet the priorities outlined by citizens.

Conley said in court Tuesday that he doesn’t agree the May vote implies a focus on open space and water quality. However, it’s reasonable to assume the vote supported the county’s parks master plan, and that plan doesn’t merely imply a preference for open space and water quality. The plan explicitly states that preference.

To that degree, Conley is wrong, even if he isn’t wrong about the athletic fields project in San Marcos. If athletic facilities is a very low priority, the facility in question is a very high priority as athletic facilities go. It’s entirely consistent with the master plan for the county to spend $1.6 million on the San Marcos facility, provided future expenditures line up with the higher priorities.

If we throw out the $500,000 of nature education components in the San Marcos project, we can ball park the athletic facilities so far at $1.1 million. If the county were to spring $3 million for athletic facilities, it would still be consistent with the parks master plan. The county might even throw in a couple bucks extra to account for kids who aren’t involved in the process.

It’s too early to worry that the commissioners court is eschewing the will of the people over its funding of athletic facilities. At the same time, it’s not too late to ensure that the county require significant matching funds, stay true to the master plan, and factor in kids, who can’t vote or make parks decisions.

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