Garden of the Gods gets low priority in city funding

       An improved economy allowed the city to budget close to $3 million more for its Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services Department this year than in 2010.

In the central area of the Garden of the Gods, hikers have a view of (from left) South Gateway Rock, Kindergarten Rock and Montezuma's Tower. The park is visited by an estimated 2 million people a year.
Westside Pioneer photo

       With the increase from $6.7 million to $9.3 million, Parks Department reports show that it restored some previously cut employee positions and beefed up citywide spending in the areas of administration; cultural services; design and development; forestry; and park maintenance, trails and open space. Rock Ledge Ranch received some funding, and neighborhood parks will get watered, have trash cans and open restrooms (those that have them).
       But missing from this funding upswing is the Garden of the Gods.
       Other than continued city support of spring and fall drainage-control projects organized by Rocky Mountain Field Institute (RMFI) volunteers, no significant upgrades are planned there in 2011, according to City Parks manager Kurt Schroeder.
       And, for the second straight year, the Garden of the Gods Foundation, with help from the volunteer, nonprofit Friends of Garden of the Gods (FOGG), is having to pay the salaries of several city employees who work at the nationally known, city-owned park. The money will come from $114,000 in foundation funds - which in the 1990s were used primarily for park maintenance and upgrades - and from $8,5000 in FOGG cash reserves.
       City Council decided to continue this arrangement, despite a red flag raised in a letter last fall from FOGG President John Demmon that it “cannot go on indefinitely… Volunteers and nonprofits can do a lot, but they wear down after awhile.”
       Schroeder expressed appreciation for the private support, as well as a concern of his own about the Garden's long-term welfare. “The foundation and all the assistance we get from volunteers allows the ongoing services at the park to continue,” he said. “Could we use more for long-range tasks? Yes. Every year we don't we fall a little further behind.”
       For the record, Schroeder noted that it's not as if City Parks has a huge amount of funds this year. The department's '11 budget may show an increase, but it is still less than half the $19.8 million in 2008. He mentioned system-wide trail maintenance as an example. Four employees used to be assigned to that. Now there is one. The reduction affects the Garden, because one of the four used to spend half his time on its trails but now the one person “is able to spend little to no time in the park,” Schroeder said.
       An early-2000s study had estimated $4 million in trail/drainage improvements were needed in the 1,300-acre Garden. The place gets an estimated 2 million visitors a year - many of whom create their own social trails.
       Schroeder estimated that this year the city itself will spend $60,000 to $70,000 - mostly in salary to different people performing miscellaneous tasks - at the Garden of the Gods. As recently as 2008, the city was spending $150,000 to $170,000 there annually, he said.
       A parks official lives in the caretaker's house at the Garden, but his duties do not include Garden upkeep. There once was a ranger assigned specifically to the park, but now the ranger for the Garden (Bob Hawley) also is responsible for Blodgett and Ute Valley parks, Schroeder explained.
       He added that, out of the estimated $531,000 in maintenance money from the Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) fund for 2011 (which became available by a citywide vote last November), none is earmarked specifically for the Garden.
       The Garden of the Gods Foundation, started in 1995 and funded by a percentage of the sales from the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center, had helped address the trail/drainage problem in recent years, along with other needs such as signage, exhibits, parking lot construction and a fire concern regarding dead and dying scrub oak.
       However, most of that money now is used to pay the salaries of maintenance and seasonal employees working at the Garden. Exceptions this year are some materials and supplies for seasonal staff and (a continuing effort) $12,000 for educational programs for schoolchildren at the center.
       FOGG also contributes $12,000 for those programs. The group is funded through money put into the Visitor Center donation box, the sale of certain educational items in the center bookstore and the times that FOGG volunteers are requested to “step on” tour buses and serve as guides. FOGG members also work the center's desk, provide nature presentations and guided walks, and assist with park litter control and trail maintenance.
       The latest transfer of salary responsibility from the city to the foundation/ FOGG took place in 2010, when the city decided it couldn't afford the park interpreter's salary which exceeds $30,000. The Garden of the Gods Foundation - which was already paying his benefit package - offered to cover it, and joined FOGG in also assuming the $17,000 responsibility for the salaries of the part-time intepreter staff. That arrangement has continued into 2011.
       Demmon's letter thanked council for restoring some funding to City Parks this year, including Rock Ledge Ranch, then added the concern: “I know that you realize that Garden of the Gods park will be 'taken care of' by the Garden of the Gods Foundation and by the Friends of Garden of the Gods, but you should also realize that cannot go on indefinitely. For the future, you need to look at restoring some funding for city staff in the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center, for the lead interpreter, and for the care and maintenance of the park. Volunteers and nonprofits can do a lot, but they wear down after awhile.”
       When FOGG offered to help out with salaries for 2010, it had to tap into its cash reserves to do so. “That was totally not in our budget at all,” Demmon said in a December interview. He added the hope that Christmas-season fundraising through the Indygive campaign would help build the reserves back up. Based on unofficial results this week on that website, FOGG contributions have totalled nearly $15,000.

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