Oakland County seeks to renew, increase millage for parks

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published August 24, 2020

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OAKLAND COUNTY — Earlier this month, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners voted to add a 0.35-mill proposal to the Nov. 3 ballot to fund the Oakland County Parks and Recreation Department, since the current millage is set to expire next year.

The parks system, founded in 1966, includes 13 parks and hundreds of recreational opportunities for residents, from sports and water parks to miles of natural and groomed trails for hiking, biking and other uses. The department also presents year-round programming for visitors of all ages and works in tandem with municipal and nonprofit organizations to expand access to activities to residents beyond the parks’ borders. More than 2 million people visit the parks each year.

For the first time in the park system’s 54-year history, the Oakland County Parks and Recreation Commission voted unanimously to seek an increase in funding.

The 0.35-mill figure is about 50% higher than what voters approved at the polls six times in the past — 0.2329-mill annually. According to Oakland County Parks and Recreation Commission Executive Officer Dan Stencil, the price hike is a kind of capital improvements package on top of the regular operating costs. For a homeowner or business with a taxable value of $100,000, the millage would cost about $35 per year for 10 years — that’s $12 more annually than the current millage expiring next year.

In 2019, about 50% of the parks system’s budget was tax revenue. Just under 40% of the funding comes from charges for services, and the rest is made up of various contributions and investments.

“In the time we’ve had (the original millage), we’ve grown from one park, 190 acres, to 13 parks with a combined 7,000 acres. We’ve hired a bunch of people over the years, though we have 30 fewer full-time people than we had in 2006. And with all of that development in the park system, there are infrastructure needs,” Stencil said. “It’s all of that not-so-glamorous stuff that’s still very important to the recreational experience. Aging windows, sewer systems — it’s all deteriorated over time.”

To sweeten the deal, Stencil said the proposal will include a number of new amenities not included in the current millage, including free day-use passes to county parks for seniors, veterans, active military members and individuals with permanent disabilities. There are  also provisions for more environmental protection and sustainability initiatives, and a collaborative program with park engineers to team up with municipal planners to connect resources and create shared, interconnected trails and facilities.

“We’ve always tried to participate in a systems approach to providing recreational activity — we, along with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Clinton River Trail and local units of government,” Stencil said. “Residents don’t care whose park they’re in or what park they’re in. They’re just happy to have the green space to recreate with their family or friends.”

But not everyone is happy about the new millage price. The county commission approved the bond for the November ballot 13-8, largely along party lines, with most Republicans voting against the measure.

“Increasing taxes during the pandemic when Oakland County residents and businesses, who are negatively impacted by economic implications of COVID-19, are uncertain of what the future holds demonstrates that the Democrat majority is more concerned about their ability to spend than they are about the well-being of their constituents,” said Commissioner Mike Gingell, R-Lake Orion, in a press release.

He continued in the release to say that to allow for more spending and additional services when there have been no efforts to reduce costs or gain efficiencies in the parks budget is disrespectful to taxpayers and “unacceptable.”

That’s simply not true, according to Stencil, who said that the parks commission has reduced the system’s operating budget twice in 2020 alone. Last September, the park system’s 2020 fiscal year budget was approved for $28,111,556.

“We just can’t squeeze another nickel or dime from this budget,” he said. “We’ve looked at how we can more efficiently use funds, but many of our grant restrictions tie our hands as to what we can dispose of. It’s not as simple as selling off an asset or something.”

Moreover, Stencil said the additional revenue would be spent on repairs, not necessarily new projects or acquisitions — although that’s not out of the question.

“At Waterford Oaks Water Park, we had to take out two attractions because one of the two towers that supported the raft rides was determined to be unsafe during a structural inspection,” he said. “We can’t turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to development opportunities, but the focus of this is to keep up the over-200 structures we’ve already built and maintain them for the next 10-plus years.”

Since the last parks millage renewal was approved in 2010 with 76.5% of the vote, Stencil is hopeful residents will remember the value of a quality parks system, though he recognizes the unfortunate timing for such a request.

But then again, during the most restrictive parts of the state’s quarantine period, Oakland County parks offered some welcome reprieve to cooped-up residents. Attendance levels across the parks system during March and April were comparable to the peak of summer, Stencil said, due in part to many first-time visitors.

“There are no county elections in 2021,” he said. “But we are a county and a region that places a very high value on recreational opportunities. Largely on trails and picnic areas and beaches. And we (the parks commission) haven’t operated in a vacuum. We’ve always kept up with the trends of Oakland County voters and what they want in their parks. And even back in the surveys we did in 2010 and more recent surveys, countywide they’ve always come back for support for an additional millage. We’re not making this up.”

Oakland County Board of Commissioners Chair Dave Woodward, D-Royal Oak, said at least now the voters will have the final say.

“Oakland County has great parks,” Woodward said in a press release. “The proposal gives voters the choice to continue to support and make critical investments in our parks and natural resources for future generations while improving services for everyone today.”

For more information on the proposal and all of the Oakland County Parks and Recreation Department’s offerings, visit oaklandcountyparks.com.

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