Call it a $7 million surplus for Austin parks. That is what city auditors found lying around in the parks budget from fees developers paid to build homes in Austin neighborhoods. City parks, a prime target for cuts during hard budget times, sure could use the money — if they could get it.
That has been difficult because those funds are not being properly managed. Problems with the park fees program surfaced in a recent city audit, which found that the Austin Parks and Recreation Department has yet to spend nearly $7 million of $16 million in fees collected from developers since 1985 to build or renovate city parks.
Auditors noted that city officials had calculated some of the fees incorrectly, causing the city to lose $3,000; and the city has not created a website or transparent bookkeeping that would allow developers or the public to track whether and how the money is spent. As a result, developers may not know when they are due refunds on unspent fees. Also, the public is largely unaware about projects that have been built with the money. The program lacks guidelines that stipulate what projects in which neighborhoods might qualify for financing. As a result of those and other problems, “citizens do not receive parkland or park improvements in a timely manner,” the audit stated.
Since American-Statesman writer Sarah Coppola reported on those issues in our June 14 editions, the city parks department has taken some steps to repair the program and get the money moving. Specifically, the parks department has hired two temporary employees to help improve financial oversight and accounting and assist in doing design and permitting work, Ricardo Soliz, a division manager for the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, told us. He says the department also will shift its focus from long-range projects that take years to complete to using those fees for smaller projects that can be built quickly.
That is a good start. But as we said, the program needs a complete overhaul, starting with hiring permanent employees who can help disburse, track, publicize, design and oversee projects. Once fixes are made to the program, the City Council should consider raising fees, given that Austin charges a lower parks fee than peer cities, according to the audit.
Austin requires developers of projects with three or more units of housing, including homes in new subdivisions and apartments, to set aside five acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents, or pay a fee of $650 per unit to the parks department. By contrast, Houston charges $700 per dwelling unit and El Paso charges $1,370. The Austin fees have not increased since 2007, and now would be a good time to raise them as city parks and improvements have not kept pace with growth.
In some cases fees, which are paid early in the development process, are paid and the projects are never built as plans change. There are restrictions on the money, which must be used for renovations or improvements, such as new playscapes, shade structures or restrooms, or to buy parkland. Another restriction is that the park fees must be spent within a mile of the geographic area of the new development. That is likely to be expanded, Soliz said.
But some things can’t be changed. The city is legally barred from using such funds on maintenance, staff or special events. The latter are considered the responsibilities of a municipality, to be financed with money from a city’s general fund budget. So fees from developers are off-limits for maintenance.
The program also needs guidelines and a website so the city can inform the public about how to go about getting funding. That also would help developers get refunds they are owed before time expires. We also urge park officials to continue setting aside some of the money for buying parkland. Another way to stretch dollars is by steering some of the park fees to the city’s neighborhood matching fund program to finance park improvements. Lasting solutions won’t happen without help from City Manager Marc Ott and the Austin City Council.
To be sure, the city has something to show for park fees collected since 1985. Some larger projects financed by the park fees include $701,000 for softball fields in Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park in North Austin, $476,000 for soccer fields in Onion Creek Soccer Complex in Southeast Austin, $287,000 for a disc golf course in Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Metropolitan Park in Southeast Austin, and $329,000 for play equipment and landscaping in Pickfair Park in Northwest Austin.
But the program is underperforming. It needs a serious upgrade to keep money flowing to our parks.
The largest amounts of fee money that have yet to be spent citywide are:
Northwest Austin: $1.8 million
Southwest Austin: $1.6 million
Southeast Austin: $1.1 million