Turlock’s Parks, Arts and Recreation Commission will live to see another day following a decision made by the City Council Tuesday night that adjusts its meeting schedule to a quarterly basis, rather than monthly, in light of recent financial woes.
Under direction from the Council, Parks, Recreation and Public Facilities Director Allison Van Guilder said her department took a “critical” look at all of its programs, amenities and processes to make sure funds were being spent efficiently — an effort made by all City departments as part of ongoing attempts to identify opportunities for cost reductions within the budget.
The City has been struggling with increased expenditures and dwindling reserves over the past couple of years, and in June 2019, the Council adopted a budget that resulted in a drastic tightening of the City’s financial belt with significant impacts on what services are provided to Turlock residents.
As a result, the City’s fire, police and parks services, among others, have taken hits. The PAR Commission was also at risk, with City staff originally recommending that the Council temporarily disband the group of community volunteers. Two options for the Council to choose from were placed on Tuesday’s agenda, however, after Van Guilder met with PAR Commission chair Brent Bohlender: temporarily disbanding the group, or, as Bohlender suggested, having the Commission meet once per quarter instead of once per month.
“I think we have some really positive examples of how the Commission played an important role as an advisory to (the Council), but what we have experienced on a trend over the last 10 years is that the opportunities for that to occur have become less and less frequent, unfortunately, and it’s by no means the fault of any Commissioner that has ever participated,” Van Guilder said, adding that the recommendation was upsetting for City staff. “In fact, it’s a bit of a disappointment for staff when we get these really enthusiastic new Commissioners who want to come in and do really great things, and they’re met with us staff saying, ‘Well, that’s a great idea but we don’t have any money’ or, ‘That’s a great idea, but that’s not the priority right now.’”
Van Guilder explained that an analysis dating back to 2016 showed a downward trend in projects the PAR Commission provided advisory guidance to the Council for; these days, meetings tend to contain mostly updates on the Commissioners’ Ad Hoc Committees, which include a national fitness campaign, an urban garden and public arts.
In total, two staff members are paid about $9,200 annually to regularly prepare for and attend meetings. Van Guilder also lamented that the hours staff members put into preparing for meetings could be used for other purposes, such as securing sponsorships for the Pedretti Park advertising program.
“I’ve had to reduce staff not only in our Parks and Recreation office, but out on the front lines in our parks and it shows. We hear from the community, so this is just one more example of how we are taking a hard look at all of the resources that you’ve given us and we’re letting you know that we just don’t believe that, right now, this is the best use of our finite resources that we have,” Van Guilder said. “…I’m really hoping that this is just a temporary situation, but part of it too is just to bring the attention to you that we might need to look at doing business a little bit differently for a while.”
The PAR Commission Ad Hoc Committees meet outside of the public meetings, and Commissioner Keristofer Seryani said he had been working diligently to create a master plan for public arts with his Ad Hoc Committee, like the City’s Parks Master Plan. He told the Council that meeting quarterly would more greatly benefit the City than disbanding the Commission altogether.
“I’d like to see going forward that the Commission is able to do more of these things. We realize the City doesn’t have funds. We realize we need to do fundraising and we think there’s a lot of community members willing to do it…,” Seryani said. “We can get money from local businesses. We don’t need to come for every single thing to the Council and ask for funding.”
Turlock resident Milt Trieweiler said that the PAR Commission contributes to local democracy in more ways than one.
“Many Commissioners go on to becoming Planning Commissioners and City Councilmembers. This is kind of a building block of our democracy and that’s what we want,” he said. “I’m sorry…you don’t need to be cutting everything for any reason. This city has changed in the last year and I don’t like it.”
Councilmember Nicole Larson is an example of that “building block,” having volunteered two years of service on the PAR Commission prior to her current tenure on the City Council.
“…I’m not sure if I’d be here today if I didn’t learn the insurmountably valuable information and how city governments work when I was on the Commission in 2016 until ’18,” Larson said.
The word “temporary” made Councilmember Gil Esquer feel uneasy about the potential decision, he said.
“If we were to disband anything it’s very difficult to bring it back, and I’d hate to see that happen,” Esquer said. “I realize we’re trying to cut costs…but I would be more prepared to take option ‘B’ and go to quarterly meetings than to disband the PARC.”
The City Council collectively thanked Van Guilder for bringing the recommendation forward and ultimately voted unanimously to have the PAR Commission meet quarterly instead of temporarily disbanding.
“I’ve been pushing for over a year now for volunteerism. To sit here and ask you…‘Thanks for showing up, but no, we don’t need your help,’ it just crushes my soul,” Mayor Amy Bublak said. “To figure Turlock wants to be a part of this community and this community is part of the people…I know that it does have a cost to it, but I think it’s important to at least lower it to the level that we can still work within.”