Half-year reprieve for nature centers
Staff stays, thanks to docents’ $85,000

       With the pledge of $85,000 in financial assistance from the local Naturalist Docent Organi-zation, El Paso County's two nature centers - including Bear Creek - apparently have been spared until the end of 2008.
       The deal was reached June 2 by the Board of El Paso County Commission-ers during a mid-year effort to reduce county government expenses in response to an overall $8.8 million shortfall.
       The commissioners are scheduled to formally ratify their June 2 consensus at a meeting Monday, June 9. Assuming approval - and there were no signs otherwise midway through this week - the revised budget will take effect July 1.
       “We can give a sigh of tentative relief,” said Risë Foster-Bruder, secretary of the docent group, which has existed since Bear Creek Nature Center started 30 years ago, “We could still get cut on Monday. You never know till they vote.” But even assuming the commissioners stick with the June 2 plan, “we've got to look at 2009.”
       Also surviving the June 2 budget scrutinty were the county's parks themselves. According to a staff recommendation, the county could have made up to $14 million by selling Bear Creek Park, for example. But no commissioner expressed current support for that idea during the recent budget sessions.
       The $85,000 docent contribution, combined with remaining county funds, essentially makes up the difference that allows the nature centers to keep their five paid staffers through December. “They are irreplaceable,” Bruder said. “If we waited for '09, all those people would have moved on.”
       Shirley Gipson, the organization president, added in a written document that closing the centers “would be devastating to the children already signed up for camps and the seniors registered for our hikes. Impacts would be felt by tourists from around the world who would find locked doors. This would eliminate the best field trip experience for school children in El Paso County.”
       The docent organization, consisting of about 1,200 people who contribute in some way and 100 who volunteer time at the nature centers as trained helpers, raises its money through membership donations, grants and program fees, Bruder said.
       “We couldn't run the nature centers without them,” Parks Director Tim Wolken told commissioners at one of its budget-discussion sessions May 29.
       County Parks, which the nature centers are a part of, needed financial aid from the docent group because commissioners decided to halve the department's funding (from $560,000 to $280,000) for the second half of this year.
       The mid-year budget reductions, prompted by increased costs and reduced revenues stemming chiefly from this year's slow economy and gas hikes, followed cuts before 2008 that had reduced services in nearly all county departments.
       Commissioners now appear to be holding out hope for a 1-cent health/ public safety sales tax that's been informally proposed by a citizen group. If voters approve such a tax in November, the savings in those budget areas could relieve the strain on other county departments, Westside resident and County Commissioner Sallie Clark explained to a meeting of the Top of Skyway Homeowners Association June 3.
       One remedy she suggested for parks might be removing the system from county control altogether, by establishing a separately taxed district like the one that existed for the county's parks into the 1970s.
       In general, without some change of the funding status quo, the county can anticipate even more “drastic measures” in 2009, Clark predicted in a separate press release. “Longer response times for emergencies from the Sheriff's Office, possible reduced hours at county parks and offices, an inability to respond to immediate public health dangers are just some of the impacts on our regional services,” she said. “While we have met our statutory obligations in balancing our current budget, a long-term solution must be found to deal with unfunded mandates [from state and federal governmen] and provide for the services our citizens expect and deserve.”
       Asked at the Top of Skyway meeting if perhaps such dire predictions aren't exaggerations meant to gain support for a new tax, Clark responded, “I'm not making this up. People ask for the truth, but when I tell them, they say, 'You're just trying to scare us.' I say, 'What would you like? Do you want me to lie?'”
       She declined to blame previous commissioners for the situation, but noted that part of the problem now is a low property tax mill levy - partly the result of commissioners cutting the rate during good economic times so as to put more money back into the hands of taxpayers. Then, with the “ratchet effect” of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR), the rate could not catch up with costs after economic downturns, she said.

Westside Pioneer article