Asked how they would divide $110 million among six capital projects, nearly 200 residents agreed with city leaders when it came to funding new classroom space and police facilities. Indeed, survey responses fell eerily close to the city’s decision to allocate $55 million to the expanding school system and $20 million to relocate the police and city court complex to West Homewood.
But when it came to devoting an entire $35 million for a sprawling remake of the West Homewood ballfields and pool–including a $4.25 million piece of property to expand on–respondents did not follow-their-leaders. As an average, survey respondents only eked out $13 million for fields, preferring to spread the rest among projects chosen in earlier surveys to 1) Advance Walkability (bridges, sidewalks, crosswalks, trails), 2) Add Greenspace and neighborhood pocket parks; and 3) improve Neighborhood Attractiveness (plant trees, landscaping, repairs, planning). An open comment field brought remarks critical of planning and city management regarding spending and the city’s physical condition. Many revealed frustration with council’s decision (reached after nearly two years of non-public meetings) to expand recreational facilities at the expense of higher priorities, including schools:
“Parks need to maintain what they have. The central pool kids area is closed and has been for weeks. General maintenance issues there such as ice machine broken for a very long time, bathroom stalls with locks that don’t work, water fountains broken. Building more and not taking care of what you have is irresponsible and not prudent. Or maybe it is a personnel issue at the park and that needs to be addressed to better manage things.”
Other voters cited a common misconception, that the $110 million bond issue and the penny sales tax passed to repay it were voted into existence by the residents. There was no such referendum, although officials frequently cited the portion of the bond issue designated to help schools,
“We voted for these funds initially to be allocated to our school system without having the ability to approve these additional options that are now included. Therefore, I think the vast majority of these funds should be allocated to our school system as we were informed in order for us to approve this additional tax.” — respondent selecting an 80/20 split of the funds for schools and police only
Although 181 answers doesn’t comprise a referendum, the clearcut rejection of ballfields as a priority (or even a runner-up) in this and past 3 surveys (which averaged 300 responses each) may be one reason council leaders didn’t ask for public input in the first place. Where Schools and Safety are the two pillars of Homewood’s appeal, ballfields have given way to grass, trees, sidewalks and adult connectivity as top concerns. Possibly leaders knew this. Some respondents wondered why they didn’t:
“… Youth sports are important BUT park and Rec is more than fields. It should be the overall well-being of ALL Homewood Citizens. The items added to this survey should have been on their radar anyway. …. “
“We have enough ball parks. Education and broad livability issues should be a priority.”
“If I could choose increments differently, I would have increased schools to $70 million, and allocated walkability, neighborhood, green space and sports $5 million each, but only if there were a detailed prioritized plan to spend this money as approved; and, also a comprehensive public plan to further improve these last four areas of expense within another 5 years to progress toward a full-scale improvement of the basic issues in Homewood.”
This survey and three previous polls (#1, #2, #3 )were conducted by a group promoting more transparency in city government. It sought to discover what residents thought were the city’s top needs after the council, with no notice, passed a penny sales tax and $110 bond issue last fall. The schools, parks and police were each to be allocated a part of the total proceeds, a plan worked out privately in the previous 21 months by a group representing members of those boards and working with Harbert International, which was to bid on the management project overseeing all three projects. The council, led by Bruce Limbaugh and wanting to continue the private planning process, established a “task force” of the same group to deliberate the details. In the face of protest and other changes, those plans–and the task force–were abandoned earlier this year.
Since that time, the school board was allowed to choose its own program manager (Hoar Program Management) and a demographer, who recently found the system’s growth trajectory wasn’t as large as guessed at earlier. The Park & Rec board meanwhile was given the $4.25 million Mason Corp. property to expand on. However, P&R plans are currently $9 million over budget and being cut accordingly.
Over the four surveys, respondents have repeatedly ranked Walkability, Greenspace and Neighborhood improvements as priorities needing attention. In Survey #4, they have put a dollar amount on those priorities, stripping the parks & rec plan of its planned $30 million to pay for more greenspace, trails, sidewalks and outdoor amenities.
Throughout the summer a new group, calling itself the Greenspace Initiative, organized to convert the current jail site to an urban park when the new facility is built. That group will make a pitch to the council tonight, as the mayor presents his FY2018 budget later in the meeting.
It remains to be seen if the council will amend or leave in place its original plan to divide the $110 million bond proceeds.
For a link to the entire Survey #4 results, including 77 comments, click here or copy and paste into a browser.