Hays County Grants Administrator Jeff Hauff discusses parks funding with the commissioners court. Photo by Sean Butera.
By SEAN BATURA
While maintaining a moratorium on allocating its remaining $8.5 million in parks and open space funds, the Hays County Commissioners Court is tasking the Citizens Parks Advisory Team (CPAT) with formulating scoring criteria by which they will determine what proposed projects should be recommended to the court for approval.
Formed shortly after Hays County residents voted two years ago for $30 million in bonds to be issued for parks and open spaces, CPAT developed criteria based on the 2002 Hays County Parks & Open Space Master Plan. The criteria set by CPAT were such that active recreation projects, like soccer fields, received low scores compared to projects relating to water quality preservation and wildlife habitat conservation.
“For any kind of active recreation, which was also a part of the bond proposal that we put to voters, the scoring system wasn’t working very well for that,” said Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle). “It was comparing apples to oranges. The parks advisory team members told us that they needed a separate scoring schedule for active recreation proposals, and we gave them the OK to go ahead with that.”
The parks and open space master plan is based on a 2000 citizen survey in which 93 percent of respondents supported county acquisition of land to protect aquifer recharge areas.
Ninety percent of respondents supported county acquisition of buffer land along streams to provide flood protection, protect habitat, natural environment and water quality. The master plan was updated in 2006, though it still reflects the same priorities set in the original, which ranks as the most important facilities those that provide water access to rivers, creeks, ponds and lakes, multi-use trails, tent camp sites, picnic grounds, and natural open space/nature study/wildlife viewing.
But the master plan ranks active recreational facilities such as youth softball fields, adult softball fields, soccer fields, baseball fields and indoor arenas among the lowest priorities for the county. As Hays County has grown and changed, however, the commissioners are fielding several requests for active recreational facilities.
“I don’t see really a reason for CPAT to develop new criteria for recreation projects when we’ve said we’re going to spend the remainder of the money on open space,” said CPAT Secretary Chris North at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting. “It doesn’t seem like a good use of our time. But I think most members of CPAT would agree that we’ll do what y’all tell us to do, and we want to help … It’s a good parks plan, and the criteria that CPAT came up with was fine.”
Said Hays County Grants Administrator Jeff Hauff, a nonvoting member of CPAT: “It’s probably time to revisit the parks and open space master plan for the county and revise that plan, probably more than a revision. It may take a new plan. Start from square one,”
He estimated a new parks and open space plan would cost tax payers between $20,000 and $30,000.
Barton said it would have been better to use an outside consultant to help CPAT develop its scoring criteria, adding that he would support hiring an outside consultant to help county staff and CPAT members revise the parks and open space master plan.
“I don’t think it would cost us much because we have such a deeply experienced citizens parks advisory team,” Barton said. “We have folks with a lot of experience in parks and open space who’ve worked for Texas Parks and Wildlife or conservancy programs or city parks programs, so I think if we engage CPAT, I think CPAT can take a lead on this, or that we could look to other resources in the county.”
Controversy surrounded a $1.6 million allocation for the Christian Federation of Police Officers’ park project in San Marcos early last year, when the project’s sponsors circumvented CPAT and brought their proposal directly to the court. Commissioners decided to send the project back to CPAT and follow the usual process. Though CPAT gave the project an insufficient score, the court voted to approve the project for funding. Another unusual case involved the $266,919 Founders Park Sports Fields project, which commissioners approved despite the moratorium they had placed on new funding.
“I understood there was some urgency involved, (and) I think it’s a worthy project, but I felt the timing wasn’t right and the process wasn’t right,” said Barton about his vote against funding the Dripping Springs project.
North said politics can be taken out of the project approval process to a great extent by approving projects based on criteria developed from examining the Habitat Conservation Plan, the Hays County Parks Master Plan and the Envision Central Texas Greenprinting process.
“For whatever it’s worth, some of us have felt a great deal of political pressure to push forward other rec projects,” Barton said Tuesday in response to North’s concerns that too much money was going towards active recreation projects.
The county has spent $21,156,836 out of $30 million approved by voters in a 2007 parks bond election. Of the money spent, Precinct 2 (the Buda and Kyle area) has received $8,504,000, followed by Precinct 3 (Wimberley area and western portions of San Marcos) at $6,600,000. Precinct 1 (eastern San Marcos and eastern Kyle) has received $5,010,917, with Precinct 4 (Dripping Springs) receiving only 1,041,919.
Following is a list of projects so far approved:
* Five Mile Dam Park, sponsored by Hays County, $1,311,500.
* Harrison Park, sponsored by the City of Dripping Springs, $775,000.
* Christian Federation of Police Officers Park, sponsored by Village of San Marcos, Inc., $1,618,417.
* Jacob’s Well, sponsored by the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, $3,000,000.
* Sports Complex, sponsored by North Hays Optimist Foundation, Inc., $ 581,000.
* Blue Hole Regional Park, Village of Wimberley, $2,000,000.
* Stagecoach Park, City of Buda, $775,000.
* Northeast Regional Park, City of Kyle, $2,479,000.
* Combined Parks Projects, City of San Marcos, $3,100,000.
*Conservation Easement/Public Access, Dahlstrom Ranch, $5,250,000
* Founders Park Sports Fields, Dripping Springs Youth Sports Association, $266,919.