Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman says the city’s parks and recreation department can bring its outstanding electric bill level by next spring with an aggressive repayment plan.
Although documents show the park system still owes Starkville Electric Department $59,000 in previous back payments and $63,177 for this current fiscal year, Wiseman says the plan, which includes doubling the department’s payments through September, will rely on a manageable-yet-aggressive schedule to erode arrearages as early as March.
“This situation didn’t develop overnight, and it isn’t going to be resolved overnight,” he said. “I believe in setting goals that are obtainable. It’s not an easy goal to hit, but we can do it.”
Financial issues within Starkville Parks and Recreation began emerging in 2013 after audits released that year showed the autonomous department grossly behind on its electric bill. Aldermen went on to approve a $100,000 funding increase for the independent commission tasked with setting its budget and approving expenses, but the city board was later forced to approve a $60,000 bailout last year when projections showed Parks would not be able to meet payroll and other obligations.
Aldermen voted to take over the department after former Starkville Parks Commission Chairman Dan Moreland and board member Wendell Gibson resigned their posts at the end of 2014.
Besides personnel costs, electricity takes away the largest sum of Parks’ revenues – about $23,000 per month, Wiseman said.
To end the current fiscal year with a zero balance, Wiseman proposes doubling that figure to a lump $40,000-$45,000 payment per month through September. Beginning Oct. 1 – the start of Fiscal Year 2015-2016 – the city would reduce those payments to $28,000-$30,000, he said.
The plan should clear Parks’ outstanding balance as late as summer 2016, he said.
“What I’m trying to do is put this on a realistic program to get the entire balance paid off as quickly as possible. A monthly $45,000 payment is definitely aggressive – it’s something I do not want to maintain for a long time – but we need to finish this year not only without additional arrearages, but also with a reasonable expectation of paying off prior arrearages as well,” Wiseman said. “The key is to get to the end of this fiscal year without a remaining balance. What we don’t want to do, however, is make lump sum payments that are too large to be sustained and run into a new financial shortfall at the end of the year.”
Park system revenues are up this fiscal year, both Wiseman and department head Herman Peters said, after officials increased a number of charges, including player participation costs for individual sporting programs and pavilion rental fees.
A sustainable electricity budget, however, would require additional funding from the city.
Even though Parks is charged on average $23,000 per month on its utility bill, Wiseman said the commission previously budgeted about $250,000 annually for payments.
Next fiscal year’s electricity line item should be $309,000-$325,000 because of the city’s push for arrearage reduction, he said, but subsequent budgets should remain close to the $300,000 mark.
When asked about possible personnel changes at Starkville Parks and Recreation, Wiseman said he would not speculate about any adjustments ahead of an expected July report from the seven-member Starkville Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.
The group was tasked by aldermen to hash through the department’s issues and potential solutions before its consolidation with the city.
In their May meeting, three of the members and the board’s liaison, Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker, agreed that focusing the department’s efforts and transitioning between being a facilitator that rents out fields to other organizations to one that plays a lead role as a host competing for state sporting tournaments could have a major impact on local finances.
The trio, with Walker adding suggestions, also proposed a new internal structure for the department, one that would ask its department head to focus on finances and employee accountability while a new foreman would oversee turf management, landscaping and routine maintenance.
The proposal also called for the department to utilize two sports program managers to oversee youth and adult sports, and a separate activities manager for other programs. On paper, Parks has two sports program manager spots, staff said, but one position was left unfilled for multiple years due to financial woes.
The park advisory board has not yet scheduled a June meeting.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch