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Mayor, parks director at odds about deferred maintenance

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The Columbus Parks and Recreation Department has raised millions of dollars from donors to help repair and improve parks facilities, while at the same time cutting the department’s taxpayer-funded budget, former Parks Director Ben Wagner said.

But Wagner was removed from his position Monday by Mayor Kristen Brown, who cited the department’s large number of delayed maintenance projects as one of the reasons she demoted him to the department’s marketing coordinator.

Brown estimated the department had a $6 million backlog of maintenance when she took office. Expenses such as a new roof at Hamilton Ice Arena are being paid for from money left over from a failed outdoor sports complex bond and from money in the city’s general fund that remained from two state tax errors that led to windfalls for the city. Brown has said the city needs to consider other options, such as raising fees, privatizing some parks functions and finding more efficient ways to operate.

Last year, she suggested that the parks department give up control of its non-reverting fund, where fees for parks programs are deposited and used to pay for those activities. She said the City Council should control that fund and make decisions such as whether any of that money could be moved to improvement projects and repairs. The City Council voted down her proposal.

In the letter demoting Wagner, Brown said that for the past two years she has been trying to get Wagner to address the capital funding shortfall.

“Allowing you to continue to lead the department puts the long-term viability of our parks system at risk and the city government’s credibility with the public at risk,” Brown said.

On Thursday, Brown said she has had multiple conversations with Wagner on the issue but not enough has changed.

Wagner countered saying that the parks department budget already has decreased from $4.4 million when Brown took office to $3.7 million this year. And the mayor had urged him to find more donors to pay for maintenance and upgrades. He said the department and the Columbus Park Foundation have raised $3 million in the past two years toward that goal.

“For the last 24 months, our staff has worked extremely hard with private fundraising efforts and thanks to a number of generous philanthropists in town and leaders we have been able to raise almost $3 million in private funds specifically for capital and for asset preservation. And for a lot of things that one might consider the responsibility of taxes to keep things afloat, to keep the buildings in good shape and repair,” he said.

Wagner said he doesn’t know of any other city department that is asked to fund its capital needs through private donations.

The department has more than $100 million in facilities, he said. Most of those were paid for by a partnership between private and public donations, with a commitment that the city would maintain them after they were built.

In the past, the parks department has funded large improvement and maintenance projects through bond sales every 10 or 15 years, Wagner said.

The City Council, in a joint statement supporting Wagner, said that cities and governing units across the state are all facing similar funding crunches, where there is not enough revenue to make all of the repairs needed for facilities. Council members said no other city department has been held to the same standard as the parks department.

“The City Council has asked repeatedly for the mayor to begin a Six Sigma study of capital needs funding for the parks department, with no response,” council members said.

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