November 15, 2012
One of the most controversial topics for the Guilford County
Board of Commissioners this year has been whether or not the county should take over the management and operation of the parks system but no one would have ever known it was a heated subject from watching the board's Thursday, Nov. 1 meeting. At that meeting, when the commissioners adopted guidelines for the takeover that's set to happen on Jan. 1, no commissioner raised so much as a peep of opposition.
Currently, the county outsources parks operations and management to Greensboro, Gibsonville, Jamestown and others, but that's all set to change on the first of the year when the county plans to hire the employees who currently work at the county's parks and form a Guilford County
parks and recreation department.
The county takeover will affect five of the county's seven parks: Bur-Mil, Hagan-Stone, Gibson, Southwest and Northeast parks. The operation of Guilford-Mackintosh Park, currently handled by Burlington, and Triad Park, which is jointly owned with and run by Forsyth County, remain unchanged.
At the Nov. 1 meeting, the board took another step down that road when it adopted newly formed guidelines regarding the benefits packages for those park employees they plan to hire. Park workers have been critical of Guilford County
over the last several months, saying the county had never contacted them in any way or given them any official word about the takeover. They said the only information they were getting about their future employment with the county was what they read in the newspapers.
At the meeting, the motion passed on an 8 to 2 vote with no discussion. Commissioner Billy Yow, one of the most vocal critics of the takeover, was running late due to problems related to his well-drilling business, and Yow arrived after the motion passed.
Yow said he had asked both Commissioners Bill Bencini and Paul Gibson who have also been critical of the parks takeover to get the board to hold off on the discussion until he arrived. However that didn't happen.
Bencini said after the meeting that Yow had asked him to delay the vote; but, Bencini said, he didn't discuss the issue or try to get it held because the writing was on the wall. He said he and other opponents felt certain there were plenty of votes to move forward with the takeover, and that it would have been a futile battle.
Bencini and Gibson were the two votes against the takeover.
The motion called for the board to approve a resolution "outlining employment transitions of not more than 30 full time positions and applicable employment terms and conditions for purposes of 1) probationary period waiver, 2) longevity payment calculation, 3) sick and vacation balance transfers, and 4) certain limited eligibility for retiree health insurance in relation to parks employees who are scheduled to transition to Guilford County
At least now, after the vote, park workers who are set to come on the county's payroll have answers to some of their questions. According to the motion adopted Nov. 1, the new county employees who have been working for other local governments to maintain Guilford County
's parks and who were hired into those jobs before July 1, 2011 will receive credit for their previous employment for the purposes of Guilford County
longevity bonuses and vacation time accrual.
Also, employees who transfer to Guilford County
won't be required to go through a probationary period as other new employees must do. In addition, the county will credit the park employees for sick leave time and parks staff will be eligible to use that time immediately upon being added to the county payroll.Guilford County
acquired Bur-Mil Park from Burlington Industries in the early '90s and over the years acquired or built the other parks in the system. Guilford County
has always contracted out the management and operations to other local governments, and currently one person oversees the county's seven parks. Even some commissioners who voted to adopt the park employee guidelines such as Commissioners Kirk Perkins and Mike Winstead have expressed real trepidation about the move.
While no commissioner raised objections at the meeting, commissioners critical of the plan did have plenty to say afterward.
"We've never run parks in the history of the county," Bencini said, "and now suddenly we're experts in it?"
Bencini said that, when the 2012-2013 budget was adopted in June, and the parks takeover was tacked onto that budget at the last minute, the board only did so with a stipulation, proposed by Yow, that county staff first bring back a detailed analysis of the cost of running each of the parks.
County staff did make a presentation in a work session on Thursday, August 9, but Bencini and other commissioners say that staff never came close to answering their questions.
Bencini said last week that he thinks Guilford County
is rushing headlong into uncharted territory, and, while some county officials expect to save money on the move, Bencini predicts it won't be long into 2013 before the board has a painful realization that running and maintaining a parks system with no experience or administrative staff to do so isn't as quite as easy as writing pie in the sky numbers down on paper.
"I just don't think this board knows how to deal with reality," Bencini said.
He said the half-page of information provided to the board in their information packets for the Nov. 1 meeting didn't begin to address the true depth of the logistical issues involved in taking over operation of the parks.
"We had 43 pages of a second draft of an agreement on a new fire engine, and 30-some pages on the second version of a change in the vicious animal law," Bencini said, "but we had a half page on taking over the parks."
Bencini said county officials are hopeful they'll save money because the county will no longer pay cities and towns a roughly 8 percent management fee. However, he added, the county officials pushing for the parks takeover don't understand some key principles of trying to save money with economies of scale. Bencini said that, in areas where local governments manage and operate parks efficiently, they generally have workers who specialize in certain functions who travel from park to park performing similar specific duties in each park.
However, in this case, Bencini said, Guilford County
intends to keep the current model in place, and keep respective employees at the parks where they're now working. He said he's willing to bet that's going to be a very inefficient system that, in the end, costs Guilford County
more than it's paying now to run and maintain the parks. He also said that, in other ways, it was hard to benefit from economies of scale with only five parks to manage.
Yow was also critical of the move toward taking over the parks, and he said after the meeting that he had concerns about another parks' related issue on the agenda that night: Guilford County
also voted at the Nov. 1 meeting to spend $117,000 for a software package and eight computers to begin implementing a new reservation system for ballparks, picnic shelters and other park facilities. Instead of a phone-based reservation system with actual people, the county will switch to an online "recreations management" system....continued on page 2