Fraser residents express frustration after parks department shut down

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published December 18, 2020

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FRASER — Following a decision to shut down the city’s parks and recreation department and letting go of its longtime director, Fraser residents are wondering what the future looks like.

During a virtual Nov. 24 Fraser City Council meeting, interim City Manager Marc Thompson announced the department’s closure and related it to the continued impact of COVID-19. The department’s director, Christina Woods, was permanently relieved of her duties.

The city’s senior center is also directly affected, as Woods ran that in addition to park and recreation-related activities.

Thompson said it was “not an easy thing to do” and thanked Woods for her 20 years of working for the city. He added that it was the “right thing to do for the community from a financial standpoint” and that the city has a responsibility to respond accordingly.

Earlier this year, the city’s van service was reduced to essential trips for seniors, to places like doctors’ offices, pharmacies and grocery stores.

Thompson said the city spent approximately $242,000 in revenues and expenditures in the 2018-19 fiscal year, and about $289,000 the following year.

This year, due to a shutdown and partial activities, he said the net cost to the city’s budget as of Nov. 1 was about $19,000. Expenses will still continue moving forward, such as heating costs.

“It was strictly basically a COVID decision,” said Fraser Mayor Mike Carnagie, who believed most of the council supported Thompson’s decision. “There’s nothing going on at all with COVID and we still have the playscapes we can utilize and all that. But there’s no special events and that.”

Carnagie said the pandemic could last until next fall and the uncertainty caused the city to make a difficult decision. He “absolutely” plans for the department to return at some point in the future.

 

‘Now is the time for residents to step up’
Woods, 34, started working for the city at age 14. She became the parks and recreation director about eight years ago. When reached Dec. 7, she said she “had no idea” she was about to be let go and was actually planning to present a coronavirus-related plan to council at the city’s meeting.

“I had been there for so long,” Woods said. “This came out of nowhere. I did not see the closure of the senior and recreation departments coming. I think the biggest thing is that so much of my life was there at recreation. I had a great team and we were able to do a lot of great things in the community.

“The people in Fraser are top notch. I met so many great families and I will have so many great memories of my time there.”

Aside from Woods, there were two full-time employees, one part-timer and two van drivers. She called recreation “the bones of the city, the soul” that connects residents and the community.

When asked whether the decision was made by Thompson alone or was impacted by members of the council, Woods said the city manager’s role is to take the council’s vision and move it forward. She said she couldn’t see herself being let go without council having its say.

“I really hope, with all my heart, that council and the city do bring (the department) back in the future. The city went through a lot of change; I think now is the time for residents to step up and tell their elected officials what they actually want in their communities,” she said. “I hope those concerns are listened to and that a long-term goal is found.”

Dana Freers spoke during the meeting. The 16-year resident later said that “this is the wrong direction for the city to take.”

“I understand the pandemic, most alive haven’t seen it,” she continued. “But to completely eliminate parks and rec, I just don’t think it’s a good idea. I think it’s just as vital to the community as other departments.

“The other cities around us, no one else has eliminated the parks and rec department. I think that’s telling. I think most recognize the value of parks and recreation and want to keep it.”

Carrie Qasawa has lived in Fraser for over 30 years and is debating leaving for good. She said she has felt a shift in the city since the early 2000s.

“I want to put my house up for sale, that’s how I feel,” Qasawa said. “Our taxes are through the roof. They made a really huge mistake by getting rid of Christina. She was from the heart. I understand cuts, but our cuts have just been cutting at us, like bullets, and that was one cut they should never have done.”

Resident Vania Apps, an integral part in making McKinley Park a reality, said the city laid off “the most talented parks and recreation director in the history of Fraser.”

“Christina Woods is very creative and she gave the residents of Fraser the most bang for their bucks, while staying within her budget,” Apps said. “I was very disappointed to learn that she was permanently laid off. Sounds like lawyer speak for ‘You’re fired.’

“I feel that parks and recreation is more important than ever before. Parents are dealing with over-stressed children, and I know that Woods had some very cool plans to have safe recreation for kids and seniors.”

Currently, the city has an interim public safety director, interim public works superintendent, no finance director and no parks and recreation director. The former city manager was also fired, which led to a lawsuit.

Carnagie said coronavirus has derailed numerous hiring processes, with the city receiving just two or three applications for certain positions in a three-month span.

He said that Thompson, who originally was supposed to be in an interim role for about six months, has come to understand the city on a larger scale and is likely to stick around until the position is permanently filled.

“I think the future’s gonna be bright,” Carnagie said. “I am concerned we have a lot of these open positions, but a lot of cities go through that during these times. By us taking our time and doing it right, we’ll get the right person in the seat for these positions.”

Some residents wonder how long that process will take.

“I can’t imagine being a young family in the city of Fraser,” Apps continued. “Tell me, what are they getting for their tax dollars? If this was a move to save taxes, it was the wrong move. There has to be quality of life in a community.”

Freers agreed, saying the city’s taxes “are pretty high” compared to neighboring communities. However, citizens are willing to pay taxes for amenities. She asked what the city’s long-term plan is, or if there is one.

“You know how many times I have people from other cities come to me and say, ‘What the heck is going on in Fraser?’” Freers said. “Fraser really needs to get it together.”

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