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Play ball:How much do city and county spend on recreation?

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat
Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat

Story by Vershal Hogan, Lindsey Shelton & Rod Guajardo

Jeanie Peabody has fond memories of her children playing at Duncan Park and enjoying all the facilities that once welcomed neighborhood children with open arms.

But Peabody says it’s unlikely future generations will have those same memories if more attention isn’t quickly paid to recreation in Natchez.

“My children enjoyed all of those facilities, and even though they’re grown, it’s still important to me to try and invest in recreation for the future generations of children,” Peabody said. “There has to be a commitment to recreation, or nothing will ever happen.”

Peabody’s fear that no meaningful changes may happen on recreation in Natchez-Adams County have most recently come to a head.

Officials with the City of Natchez and Adams County recently disagreed on whether or not to fund a communitywide recreation director’s position. The discussion became an argument over how much each entity currently pays toward recreation and how the city and county could work together to make an equitable contribution to recreation.

But currently, the amounts spent by each governmental entity on recreation are far from equitable.

City pays much more

When it comes to recreation programs, the City of Natchez budgets nearly 20 times more than does Adams County.

Looking beyond budgets and including in-kind contributions such as utility bills and grounds maintenance, Adams County’s recreation contributions grow somewhat but still only equal approximately 10 percent of what the city spends.

The City of Natchez’s current annual recreation budget includes $911,526 in revenues and $929,877 in expenditures, according to a budget provided by the city clerk’s office.

The revenue budget includes $297,756 appropriated from the general fund and $241,570 in taxes that are dedicated to the recreation fund, or approximately 60 percent of the total.

Adams County’s recreation budget is $50,000, with another $40,508.58 in in-kind contributions toward recreation facilities added through the year.

The Natchez-Adams County Recreation Commission has advocated for the hiring of a joint recreation director. The commission proposed that Adams County pay $45,000 in salary and the City of Natchez provide $15,000 a year for salary, a car and employee benefits.

The county would also turn over its recreation budget to the new joint recreation director, who recreation commission chair Tate Hobdy said would focus on programming, budgeting and doing capital campaigns for a consolidated program.

But some city officials were hesitant to embrace the recreation proposal, saying they felt contributions from the two governments would ultimately be unequal.

City of Natchez golf

Approximately 55 percent of the current city recreation budget — or $513,402 — is allocated for the Duncan Park Golf Course.

Mayor Butch Brown said the golf course generates the most revenue of all of the city’s recreational activities.

The golf course budget increased approximately $50,000 over last year’s budget because the city contracted with Mississippi Management for $66,000 annually to manage the course. The city had previously been paying the company approximately $48,000 only to maintain the course, golf course Superintendent Greg Brooking said.

The city also added a $20,000 contract with a company to trim and remove nuisance trees at the golf course, Brooking said, to maintain the integrity of the course.

The increase in the budget will more than be offset, Brown said, with the recent transfer of some recreation employees to other departments.

Approximately $144,700 is budgeted for full-time salaries, $16,300 for part-time salaries and approximately $51,300 for benefits.

Brooking said the golf course staff includes four full-time groundskeepers for the course, two part-time golf cart employees, two full-time pro shop employees and a part-time administrator.

Approximately $35,000 is budgeted for turf fertilizers, chemicals, sand and other course supplies, $19,000 for gas and oil, $14,000 for operating supplies and $32,000 for repairs and maintenance.

Last fiscal year the golf course generated approximately $319,592 in revenues, according to figures from the city clerk’s office. Most of that came from golf cart rental fees, which totaled $145,678, and green fees, which totaled $132,125.

Driving range fees and concessions generated approximately $18,000 each and merchandise approximately $5,000.

The city has budgeted approximately the same amount of revenue from the golf course this year, approximately 34 percent of the city’s recreation revenues.

Brown and Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery, who is head of the city recreation committee, said revenues should be up at the end of the fiscal year.

Fortenbery said monthly totals for green fees and cart fees have been up since last October, when Mississippi Golf Management took over management. Fees were up as much as $10,000 in February.

Brooking said the company has tighter reins on the operation of the golf course and has eliminated abuse of golf course services.

Brown said the golf course also restructured its fee system, raising some fees and eliminating other redundant fees. The course also eliminated all memberships except one-year or six-month memberships.

“We’re cutting down on expenses that need to be cut down on,” Brooking said. “We don’t want to cut down on money that is preserving the city’s asset of the golf course. Money has to be spent at the golf course to upkeep it.”

Grounds and ball field maintenance

Grounds and ball field maintenance make up 17 percent of the city recreation budget, with $153,996 budgeted for this fiscal year.

Salaries for grounds and ball field maintenance total approximately $56,000. That includes three full-time maintenance workers and one part-time worker. Benefits total approximately $20,000.

The contract for grass cutting for recreation areas and ball fields is $42,800 annually.

The budget also includes $10,000 annually for gasoline and oil, $12,500 for electricity and other expenses.

City of Natchez Tennis

Tennis expenses are approximately 12 percent of the recreation budget, with approximately $110,800 budgeted for this fiscal year.

That includes approximately $66,900 for salaries for tennis pro Henry Harris, the tennis shop manager and one part-time employee.

Employee benefits total approximately $18,400.

Materials, repairs and maintenance, electricity, concessions and other expenses total $25,475.

The city has budgeted for approximately $22,000 in revenues for tennis this year, approximately 2 percent of total revenues.

City of Natchez other facilities

Approximately 10 percent — $89,542 — of the recreation budget is spent at the city’s other parks and facilities, including North Natchez Park, the Martin gym, Concord Avenue Park and others.

That figure includes Recreation Operations Director Wilbert Whittley’s $31,500 salary, as well as $12,325 total for part-time basketball referees. Benefits total approximately $10,380.

The budget also includes $6,750 for league supplies, $7,000 for repairs and maintenance, $6,550 for electricity and various other expenses.

Martin league fees generate approximately $17,800, or approximately 2 percent of total revenues.

The recreation budget also includes an approximately $62,000 fund for parks administration, which included a $39,000 salary plus benefits for recreation co-interim director Salina Edwards. Edwards is now working in the mayor’s office but will be paid from the recreation budget until the end of the current fiscal year, Brown said. She will then be paid from the mayor’s office’s budget, he said, which will free up that money in the recreation budget.

Adams County Recreation

With only $50,000 set aside each year for the county’s recreation program, Adams County’s recreation budget is only approximately 5 percent of what the City of Natchez spends on recreation on an annual basis.

Supervisor David Carter and County Administrator Joe Murray recently worked to determined what costs the county contributed in in-kind contributions toward the recreation program.

The in-kind contributions include employee salaries, utilities, property insurance, and payments on a tractor note.

When those costs were figured in, the county’s recreation expenditures are $90,508.58, Carter said, including approximately $1,000 in revenue the county receives for renting out some of its facilities.

The county has five parks — located in the Lagrange, Kingston, Broadmoor, Pinemount and Providence areas — as well as Chester Willis Field and the Adams County Equine Center on Muddy Fork Road in its recreation inventory.

In 2012, the county spent $19,308.58 in utilities at its parks and recreation facilities. Another $5,000 was expended on property insurance.

One county employee — who is paid $20,000 annually and receives an additional $10,000 worth of benefits — has the responsibility of mowing county parks. Assuming that employee spends a third of his time on recreation — Carter said it is likely closer to 25 percent — that would come to $10,000 in employee salaries and benefits toward recreation.

The tractor note was for a $24,600 tractor with a $5,200 annual payment that was purchased for use in the entire county. Carter said approximately half of the machine’s operating time is toward recreation.

The actual $50,000 budget is split, with $35,000 going toward park upgrades such as repair and painting of bleachers and $15,000 for expenses such as chemicals, tractor parts, mowers and other needs.

Carter said the county is able to work with such a lean recreation budget is by having strong community involvement in its local parks.

The county also often uses inmate labor to make repairs and maintain some facilities, he said.

If the supervisors fund a recreation director at a rate of $45,000 annually — something the board has committed to doing on a pro-rated basis for the current fiscal year — their total recreation contributions would be bumped up to $135,508.58.

Hiring a director?

Fortenbery said the next step toward a consolidated city-county recreation program is hiring the director.

“I think you need a director in place before you can get a big picture going,” he said. “That’s just my opinion.”

And, despite recent debates, Fortenbery said he believes progress toward getting a director in place is moving better now than it has since a non-binding, countywide referendum on recreation was passed 2009.

Carter — who serves as the county’s liaison to the recreation commission and was a member of the now-dissolved county recreation board before his election — said the county is committed to hiring a recreation director.

“We are ready to move forward on this,” Carter said. “We want to see this thing happen.”

Having a director in place will help with the process of consolidating the two programs, he said.

But Brown said some of the aldermen do not want to hire a recreation director and turn the city’s recreation budget over to a third party to be budgeted, thus losing oversight of the money.

As of now, Brown said, the city and the county are working out the specifics of hiring a director.

Inactivity exodus

As city and county leaders continue to mull how they might work together on recreation, for some parents, time has run out.

It wasn’t an easy decision for Leigh Anne Mason to take her daughter, Shelby, out of Natchez softball leagues and cross the river to compete in the Vidalia league. But it was one that Mason had to make for her daughter’s sake.

“I hated to jump on the bandwagon and go across the river, but we stayed with Natchez as long as could before going to Vidalia,” Mason said. “In Natchez, 11-year-olds to 18-year-olds play together, and they do that because they don’t have enough kids for more leagues.

“We just felt like there was more competition because of the age groups, and the chances to go to All-Star games.”

Mason, who also serves on the Natchez-Adams County Recreation Commission, said while she hates to see more and more players going to play ball in Vidalia, it’s something that will continue to happen unless changes are made in Natchez.

“I’m kind of the softball voice on the recreation commission, and we’ve played ball from Orlando to Joplin, Mo., and our facilities here are terrible,” Mason said. “They do the best that they can do with what they have, but it’s time for some upgrades.

“And it’s not just softball — baseball, tennis, everything needs an upgrade.”

Having witnessed first hand the economic opportunities from athletic tournaments, Mason said recreation upgrades would be an investment for the city.

“There are tournaments in softball, baseball and soccer almost every weekend, and if you had the right person reaching out to these tournaments people would come here,” Mason said.

“I think it’s time for Natchez to step up and make things better, not only for our kids here, but also for the kids who could be coming in from out of town.”