Mecklenburg parks’ big budget boost isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

At first glance, the proposed fiscal 2020 budget for Mecklenburg Park and Recreation looks like a slam dunk: $51 million total!  A Zion Williamson monster jam. A $13 million increase! The fans go nuts!  A play destined for the highlight reel.  

With the clarity of a slow-mo replay, however, stripped of its glitter and pizzazz, the move becomes just a mediocre layup. 

[Read more: Mecklenburg parks could get a big spending boost]

First, the proposed $51 million budget shouldn’t be compared to the $44 million pre-recession budget, as the county has done.  The fiscal 2020 budget includes one-time expenditures for line items that weren’t included in the fiscal 2009 budget, such as $4.5 million for deferred maintenance and equipment, and $325,000 for a new master plan.  

It’s hard to celebrate receiving money for deferred maintenance: If parks hadn’t been so chronically underfunded for the past 11 years, there’d be no need for it.

There’s also $3.9 million in the “capital reserve” line item. According to Park and Recreation staff, that money is for “maintenance, repairs or renovations for our facilities (replace HVAC, replace doors, painting at our recreation centers, replace flooring, etc.).” This is beyond basic day-to-day staffing and maintenance. 

The proposed fiscal 2020 budget includes only modest increases for those hum-drum, but totally essential, activities that have suffered the most over the past decade.  If you add the proposed $2.5 million for operations and $2.9 million for additional staff to the current $38 million operations budget, the result is an operations budget almost equal to where it was 11 years ago.

The proposed fiscal 2020 budget might score a couple points, but it’s hardly the game changer needed by a system that’s dead last in the national standings.