Since it was built in 1980, the Kenai Recreation Center has been a popular attraction in Kenai.
"My wife and I are retired and, frankly, that's one of the benefits of living in this community," said Kenai resident Mark Necessary. "It serves not only the seniors, it serves the young people, too."
With trying financial times facing the city of Kenai -- due largely to the nationwide drop in interest rates and made worse by the closure of Big Kmart and Gov. Frank Murkowski's budget proposal to cut municipal revenue sharing funds -- the council has decided to tighten the city's belt.
At its most recent budget work session, the council directed the city's administration to create a fiscal year 2004 budget with a deficit of no more than $500,000. The administration has to cut about $1.2 million out of the current budget to get to that level, said City Manager Linda Snow. The cuts are coming from just about every city department except public safety. This means there will be changes in city departments across the board -- including the Rec Center.
The fear among Rec Center users and Parks and Recreation (the city department the Rec Center is included in) commissioners is that Rec Center programs and services will be reduced significantly next year, if not cut altogether.
According to commissioner Jack Castimore, the commission saw a preliminary Parks and Recreation budget document for the fiscal year 2004 at its March 6 meeting. That generated the impression that the center would be drastically affected by budget cuts next year.
"It seems to have deleted the entire recreation program -- I mean the entire program," Castimore said.
Of particular concern was the fear the Teen Center program would be cut.
"For many of us, we see this as an outlet for those junior high kids who fall through the cracks," Castimore said. "Looking at the children here today, they need a safe haven and for years this has provided a safe haven. And the budget we have seen seems to suggest this is not the case."
When asked whether the Rec Center would be drastically affected or even shut down next year as a result of budget cuts, Snow said that is not the case.
"I would say none of those things will result," she said. "... I, personally, as the manager, did not ever consider that to be an option. The idea of shutting down that building -- there are some things we can do under the most terrible circumstances, and we've done everything possible to avoid that possibility."
That is not to say that there won't be any cuts to the Rec Center, however.
"Obviously, we are working on what potential changes (there will be) and what the impact of those changes will be," Snow said. "There are likely to be some personnel changes and reductions, possibly some reduction in the number of hours of operation. That's also true for some other departments. ... In some way, every department will be affected."
Snow said she did not know what budget proposal the commission had seen. During the city's budget process, the administration has several meetings with department heads and several budget proposals are created and passed back and forth. This year, Snow said most departments were asked to cut 10 percent from their budgets, although that number can vary a bit from department to department.
The city's budget process will not be completed until late March or early April, Snow said, so no specific numbers regarding the Rec Center will be available until then.
"At this point, it's pure speculation to say those services wouldn't be provided," said Parks and Recreation Director Bob Frates. "At this point, the question is to what degrees would those services be provided. ... It's too early to tell. It's in everyone's best interest to see that the services are still continued one way or another."
In order to continue to provide Rec Center services in the face of budget cuts, the city has been exploring different options, Snow said. One of those is forming a partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula. This is not a new idea in Kenai, or the rest of the country. The club has wanted to expand its facilities for some time, and it provides services that parallel some of the ones the Rec Center offers -- notably the Teen Center. Frates said the club and the city have been discussing a partnership for more than a year.
"I'd like to emphasize the fact that partnership is a good thing," Frates said. "The benefits far exceed any of the drawbacks."
The city received a general proposal from the club March 14, suggesting that the club would provide management and operational personnel at the Rec Center and the Teen Center, while the city would provide the building itself, building maintenance, the cost of utilities and prenegotiated supplemental operating funds.
The document suggests the club would like to continue the Rec Center's current programs and add the clubs' programs to it.
"The primary objective will continue to be providing traditional city recreational services for the youth and adults of Kenai as economically feasible, enhanced by the proven youth development programs of the Boys and Girls Club," the document states.
Tina Marie Herford, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula, said the arrangement is just in the discussion phase at this point. She did not comment on any specifics of how the partnership would work.
Parks and Recreation commissioners and some Rec Center users are skeptical the Rec Center's current programs would still be operated if the Boys and Girls Club moved in.
"The Boys and Girls Club, that's a fine organization, but they serve a little different group of people than what the Rec center does," Necessary said.
Necessary said he would not be comfortable with any private organization operating out of the Rec Center.
"Why should they have priority over the numerous other organizations for that facility?" he said. "Taxpayers built that facility and secured the money for it. I don't feel like anyone, the Boy Scouts or whoever, (should operate out of the facility), I don't feel like that would be the best service for the community."
Necessary also said he thought the Parks and Recreation budget could be cut in such a way as to allow the Rec Center to continue operating without the Boys and Girls Club moving in, though he provided no specific suggestions of what those cuts may be. He also questioned the city for pursuing a partnership with the club.
"My concern is it was almost a knee-jerk reaction (to budget cuts)," he said. "They're not really going in giving enough thought to how you can address this problem."
"Our fear is (the Rec Center) is something valuable to the community that we worked hard to get," he said. "A lot of us are saying, 'Why are we panicking? The sky is not falling. We have a bank account. We created it for a rainy day. If temporarily we have a rainy day, let's go to the bank account.'"
Snow and Frates said in their discussions with the club, they did not get the impression the club wants to do away with the services the Rec Center provides.
"It is not their intent to come in and detract from the services or cut or change the services," Frates said. "The best case scenario is to partner with the city and operate the facility to where the public wouldn't even notice a difference. At the same time, it's possible that that would save the city some money."
A work session is planned for April 7 between the Parks and Recreation Commission, the city council and the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula to discuss the specifics of the proposed partnership.
"Let's get it out there. Let's get it on the table for discussion," Snow said.
If an agreement is reached between the city and club, the idea is the club would transition into the center slowly and just see how it goes, Snow said.
"It's something that may or may not be functional as far as the community is concerned," she said. "... Where it would go from there depends on how it works and how the club and community feels about it."
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