Citizens object as Council considers cutting Parks Director, Harbormaster
by Jack Mayne
Twenty-five people took more than an hour last Thursday night (Sept. 17) to tell the Des Moines City Council not to cut the jobs of the city’s Parks Director and Harbormaster, and to find money to keep these important, well respected department heads in their jobs.
The changes were only proposed and none of them have been approved by the City Council and will not take affect until decided upon at a future council meeting.
The matter came up because of two successive state audits that say the city must cut its budget because it was heading to insolvency.
The Council told City Manager Tony Piasecki to cut expenditures to raise approximately $600,000 for the 2016 budget.
Mayor Dave Kaplan said the city has a “structural deficit of about $1.7 million.” One of the problems of the current method is relying on money coming in, but if it doesn’t come because, for example, a construction project is delayed, the city suddenly has a deficit situation.
Piasecki and the city staff came up with the solution that citizens at the Thursday night session universally opposed.
Again, none of the changes have been approved, so no changes will happen until and if the Council makes decisions.
Cuts of respected leaders
The big budget change proposal is to eliminate the Parks, Recreation and Senior Services Director and the Harbormaster jobs, then add a combined director to save $89,500 from both the city general fund and the marina fund.
The proposal to the Council would expand duties of the senior services manager to include recreation coordinator and functions, and would expand duties of marina manager to include events and rental coordinator and functions.
Another part of the city management plan would mean eliminating city-run programs to save $619,000.
This would create a passive park system “where folks play at parks on their own but with no programs.” Park services would then be provided through a parks district which would “allow voters to vote for additional property tax support for these programs to maintain or reduce current level of fees/tax subsidy.”
Other parts of the proposed money saving plan would over city code enforcement to the police department, as well as consider getting some services from the King County Sheriff’s Office which would “will result in lower level of police service.”
Piasecki also proposes several other administrative changes for Council consideration.
Citizens loudly object
Jim Langston, vice president of the Des Moines Historical Society, said he hoped the city would not cut the amount it pays for rent of its museum building, “that is all it pays for the museum and we hope that can remain in the budget.”
Rick Johnson, Des Moines Historical Society Museum treasurer, said they have no paid help, all activities are run by volunteers, and that cutting city support would likely mean the end for the museum.
“It is up to you Council members that we, you, continue to support our museum.”
Thelma Vannoy said she wanted to see the city continue to support the historical society and its museum. She told of a man who came in and wondered if they had old phone books. Two were brought out and the man found his parents and grandparents listed, “and he was so happy he put a donation in the box and we have never seen him again.”
“I, also, ask you to consider not cutting our funding.”
Tanya Engeset of Burien said her roots are in Des Moines and she is a member of the museum board. “Please continue funding the historical society,” she said.
Kaylene Moon said she knew the city budget was “in arrears” but said she is asking for is “a reasonably balanced approach for those of us who live here and love Des Moines – a balance between safety and quality of life.” She said she understands that crime is down and paying for new officers and cars is not justified.
“I’m requesting continued quality of life for all ages. That can’t be done by eliminating a major position in the parks department and shifting responsibility to the Senior Center director …”
“It is more than safety for people to want to live and work and play in Des Moines,” Moon said.
Jeanne Serrill said there is a lot of misinformation in Des Moines.
“We need transparency in Des Moines. Rumors are floating around left and right and nobody knows the answers. I think an easy way to do it is put it on The Waterland Blog. We’ve got to get this methadone thing straightened out, is Joe Dusenbury going to be let go, what’s happening at the marina, what’s happening with our senior center? We’re getting a Dollar Store? Why aren’t we getting a grocery store?
“People don’t know how hard the city and the Council are working on problems,” she added.
She added that the senior center is more than just a lunch, “they linger, socializing, talking” together with others.
Michael Spear, vice president of the Highline School Board, spoke on behalf of the Highline Schools Foundation, telling the Council how helpful city Parks Director Patrice Thorell has been “a monumental aid for us” finding space for functions in Des Moines. He said there can be “creative solutions” for the city’s financial difficulties.
“I think you can come up with options that won’t lead to people’s loss of positions … that will still allow for the cost savings that I know the Council needs,” Spear said.
Merge with another city?
Former Councilmember Susan White said it might be the time to merge Des Moines into other surrounding cities. “This has almost become not sustainable. There is a tough process between Woodmont and Redondo, should we just go to Federal Way, and the rest of the city can move north.”
“I am really upset as many others are, cutting … a wonderful person that has been part of our community and done so much for the Parks and Recreations Department,” referring to Patrice Thorell. “I don’t see any of you really supporting cutting her position, but it’s out there.”
“Maybe it is not sustainable to maintain these little cities,” White said. “I’m kind of at that point – maybe that’s an option.
“We see this dwindling, and that dwindling and people are not happy, so I hope you keep making the right decisions.”
Sue Anderson, a former city employee, came to support the retention of Parks Director Thorell, who has an “outstanding reputation in the city, the state and beyond” and noted her many awards and citations. “The health and well-being of Des Moines citizens are depending on you.”
Danielle Jones was another supporter of the retention of Thorell. The suggestion that the Parks Department can be run by the Senior Services director would not work because that person hasn’t the experience of Thorell to schedule after-school activities and pre-school programs so important for children. Jones also said raising prices would exclude too many families, especially those with more than one child.
Celeste Casello said she was actually born in Des Moines, with a first grader and her 83-year old father. She noted a huge change with refugees and immigrants moving into the city.
“That is actually one thing where religion, politics, cultural things are separate and we come together under the guide of activities and sports and actually feel that we are truly united.” Her 16-year-old son “knows so many people and he feels this is his home town and that is largely, in part, to the activities that we have been able to participate in and that were sponsored through the City of Des Moines.”
I Love Des Moines
Casello said she has considered leaving because of decay “and other things” but she wants to stay but wants the recreation programs protected.
“This is where I was born and I love it,” she said.
Ben Stewart said he had come to defend the job of the Harbormaster, but said that all of the comments about Parks Director Thorell, it is that she the “best fundraiser. The grants she has probably nurtured over the last few years … okay, we don’t even have a tax base that can raise money like she can.”
The Harbormaster, Joe Dusenbury, does a great job – “the detail and lifetime knowledge that it takes to be a Harbormaster … when you get a fine it would be a lot more than his salary,” said Stewart.
“Both these jobs are incredibly important,” Stewart said. “You don’t cut the people out who actually know the business.”
Councilmembers then commented on what they heard from the citizens.
Councilmember Vic Pennington asked residents “to be patient with us as we go through this and it is not an easy task.”
“I am going to try to make the best decisions … we only have so much money in that pot of money.”
Councilmember Bob Sheckler said, “Please don’t think for even a second that anyone has already said we are getting rid of Patrice Thorell.” Her name on the list is just one of a series of options, said the veteran Councilmember whose term expires at the end of this year.
Mayor Pro Tem Matt Pina said he particularly values when people come to talk to the Council about the values of Des Moines.
Councilmember Melissa Musser said the heart and soul of the community is in the Parks Department and that Thorell is at every event, often setting up or taking down equipment. She told the meeting “we get it” and this budgeting “isn’t fun anymore.”
Councilmember Jeremy Nutting said he would support any activities to get the proposed Woodmont drug and alcohol treatment facility moved.
Mayor Kaplan said he would do everything possible to see that the money for the historical association is found.