Anyone for tennis? Parks and Recreation Commission proposes $4.7-million budget

From pickleball prices and parking plans to staffing shuffles, ramped-up recycling and some 700 acres of grass to be mowed, a wide-ranging discussion framed the Parks and Recreation Commission’s presentation to the selectmen on a $4,736,000 budget proposal that represents a less than 1% increase — up $18,600, or 0.39% — for 2019-20.
This request is part of a more than $148-million in town and school budget proposals that officials are working on, readying for presentation to voters in May.
The Parks and Recreation Department also advanced more than $871,000 in requests for the capital budget — a listing of sizable projects and purchases usually paid for with borrowing. The department’s major capital requests include: $320,000 to replace one of six rooftop air conditioners at the recreation center; $201,000 for a 40-car parking lot expansion to serve the rec center and Founders Hall; and $98,000 to complete a $1 million repair project on the water-damaged interior walls at the recreation center.
“We really need some additional staff,” Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Phil Kearns told the selectmen. “We understand we may not get it.”
The department currently has 30 full-time, 22 part-time and approximately 125 seasonal employees, according to Kearns.
Citing reductions made in the recent town staff reorganization, Kearns made a pitch for two staffing additions: a $10,000 increase in money for life guards at the recreation center pool; and $21,200 to increase seasonal help for the grounds maintenance.
The lifeguards are already working the needed hours, with the commission scrambling to cover the cost — lifeguard expenses now run at about $189,000 a year but the current year budget was set at $176,000 and the increase would bring it up to the projected cost.
The struggle to maintain over 700 acres — including school grounds — prompted the request for additional summer help.
“We cut grass in the rain now,” said Bobby Schneider, who oversees the Parks and Recreation grounds maintenance. “And as of this year we get ridiculed for it on Facebook.”
The increase for summer staff would add two seasonal workers, to the grounds crew, one for 14 weeks and one 32 weeks.
“During the summer months in prior years the department had five individuals as seasonal help,” the department’s budget book explains. “Now department has only three” — although one is working a longer period of the year.
Adding to the workload is state-mandated recycling. The department wants to begin in Ballard Park and at Martin Park Beach in 2019-20, and then move to other parks in future years.
“Wherever there’s a garbage can, there would be another receptacle,” said Parks and Recreation Director Dennis DiPinto. “People are willing to recycle as long as you make it as convenient as regular garbage.”
Schneider described “a minium of 80 cans around town during the summer” that need to be emptied.
“Are we going to talk about pickleball?” SelectwomanMaureen Kozlark asked. “There’s been so much hubbub.”
The sport is popular with seniors, and Parks and Recreation’s price increase triggered an organized push-back.
“We’ve done a lot of research on what other people are charging for pickleball, and what it costs us,” Kearns said. “...There was an advisory committee formed.”
The plan is to have pickleball players get recreation memberships that will entitle them to use other facilities, but at an annual price that will rise from $120 to $240 to $480.
“Some are upset,” Kearns said. “The ultimate fee we’ll charge is the same as for a wellness membership.”
Non-members can play a $10 drop-in fee, but for the average pickleballer — playing two or three times a week, according to Kearns — the membership is more economical.
The department added some enforcement — a swipe card system at Yanity Gym.
“Many people were just coming and playing,” Kearns said.
“Sixty to 70% of pickleball players are not Ridgefield residents,” he added.
Kearns said the pricing is designed to get most users in general memberships that give them access to a variety of facilities and programs.
“We would like everybody to be all-inclusive,” said Kearns.
“We’re down to four or five categories,” said DiPinto.
“What’s the objective here? Are you trying to break even?” asked Selectman Bob Hebert.
“What we’re trying to do is come as close as we can to covering the cost,” said Kearns.
“We’re trying to keep a reasonable cost,” he added. “It’s basically just about breaking even for the rec center.”
Summer camp
Parks and Recreation officials regard their summer camp program, which benefits from being based in the Recreation Center, as one of the operation’s major assets.
“There’s not too many municipal camps that have the amenities like spray bays and pools,” DiPinto said.
It’s most popular with younger kids.
“We start to see a drop-off at eighth grade. We’re trying to expand our market,” DiPinto said.
The selectmen asked if the camp lost older kids to the Boys and Girls Club’s programs, and how they handled the competition.
“We try to be sensitive to the Boys and Girls Club — it’s another great institution in town,” said Kearns. “...We try not to go head to head with them.”