The work of the Rhinelander parks public engagement task force came to an official end Tuesday following a special meeting of the city's parks, buildings and grounds committee, but many of the members intend to keep working together in an unofficial capacity for the betterment of recreational facilities in the city.
The report the group has been working on since it first began meeting in mid-January is expected to have a lasting impact as it was formally included in the city's outdoor recreation plan at the end of Tuesday's meeting.
The task force, which was facilitated by Myles Alexander of the Oneida County UW-Extension, first presented its report to the committee on May 22. At that time, committee chair Sherrie Belliveau set a special meeting for Tuesday to allow members time to read it, as well as get feedback from parks, buildings and grounds director Jeremy Biolo on how the department could act on the recommendations.
Before getting to the task force report, alderwoman Dawn Rog presented a report that delved into how the city's parks are funded as well as the demographics of its users.
According to Rog's report, which cited the 2017 budget, 99.5 percent of the parks budget of $348,534 comes from city property taxes, with just $2,000 coming from agreements from various groups that use the city ball fields and the BMX track. Per capita, city residents pay $2.13 per $1,000 of income into the parks budget, she said.
Rog said 57 percent of park users were residents of surrounding townships, and earn an average of 35 percent more than city residents. Her report also cited that 73 city residents gave input of one kind or another to the task force versus 73 township residents.
"The data from this self-selected sample suggests there may not be a significant difference between city and town residents' thoughts about Rhinelander parks," she said. Rog's report cited the task force's report, while noting the results were not a "statistically valid sample of the population."
She also gave a brief history of how the YMCA took over the recreation program from the city in June 2002.
Rog said the reason she wanted to give the report was to clarify for the members of the task force and the general public that "everybody needs to join in and participate in the use and funding of park activities" because city residents can't afford to fund the needed infrastructure maintenance and improvements needed and desired.
"The city can't (financially) carry the load, or we could carry the load, but we would just have to change what our priorities are with the monies that we have," Rog said after the meeting.
"Over the years, the city's parks budget has been drastically cut," she said. "The only way we can increase funding for parks is to raise taxes, and that is a non-viable solution as far as the city taxpayers are concerned. So we have to look at other ways to fund the parks."
One of the recommendations in the task force report was the creation of a park district involving the towns of Crescent, Pine Lake, Newbold and Pelican to help fund parks. Belliveau said she would love to see one created, but doesn't see the four town boards going along with the idea without pressure from their residents. She said the priorities the task force outlined in their report might help demonstrate to the municipalities the need for economic cooperation.
"It's not something that is going to happen today, and it isn't going to happen tomorrow, but I think it could happen in the next three to five years," she said. "I think it is a viable solution."
She also said it would be detrimental to the city if the use of th parks was limited to just city residents.
"It would just destroy the city, the parks would literally be empty," Belliveau said. "So we have to take those people (non-residents) into consideration."
In Alexander's absence, Dave Heck served as the task force's primary spokesman to the committee, but other members were also given opportunities to speak in support of the report.
School District of Rhinelander activities director and task force member Brian Paulson said parks are an important factor when business look at the Rhinelander area when considering where to locate or relocate, along with local schools, hospitals and other attractions. Belliveau agreed and noted the city is going to have to find a way to get more funding for parks to repair the crumbling facilities. She said Biolo is already working on compiling a list of needed repairs and how to fund them.
She also said that some of the items on the list of recommendations in the task force report, such as the creation of a dog park, were being implemented. The dog park at Shepard Park was approved by the City Council a day earlier.
Paulson said the purpose of the task force was to get the various user groups to work together toward a common goal and the report contained some practical changes. He added that the recommendations were created by area residents for area residents, not written by a firm hired from out of the area.
"There was some drama (at the beginning), and definitely, definitely some issues when the dog park (originally) was not getting approved and the softball field (at Pioneer Park) not getting approved, but there was some great solutions coming from all this with the school district," he said.
Heck added that there are a lot of action steps in the report's plan, and fundraising will be necessary to help the city reach those goals. But in order to gain traction with possible donors, the city will have to take ownership of the plan and work to move it forward.
"We look forward to help, because otherwise people are going to ask where's the backing (from the city)," Heck said.
It was pointed out by another member of the task force that there are businesses and individuals out there who would be willing to donate to improving the parks.
Rog said it isn't just a matter of raising money to improve the parks, money will also be needed to maintain the present amenities and the improvements going forward.
"For some reason, things have a way of never panning out (on the upkeep)," she said. "It's one thing to have great ideas, it's another thing to have the funding to keep those good ideas going."
She also added that when people skip paying for the use of the city boat landings or other honor system user fees, they are actually taking funding away from the parks.
Belliveau also said that there was talk about forming a "friends of the parks" group to help raise money and assist the committee in planning improvements, and Heck said the members of the task force have discussed just that.
In the four years of various groups gathering survey data, it has been demonstrated that there is interest by the public in becoming more directly engaged about the parks, he added.
"Our parks are one of our biggest strengths," he said. "If this (the task force's efforts) is turned into a positive, the parks will benefit and the task base will prosper."
Belliveau said the city has to work harder at getting the parks more in the public eye in a positive way, citing a feature the mayor used to write for local newspapers spotlighting different parks.
"Little things like that, I think, will help toward that goal also," she said.
Alderman Steve Sauer, who was appointed as the city's representative to the task force, said it is important that the parks committee not only accept the report, but also start working on reversing the decline in funding for the parks in the annual budget.
Despite the decline in funding, positive changes are starting to be made, he added.
"We have some very motivated groups that would like to see some stuff happening," Sauer said. "I really think this (the checklist in the report) should be pushed forward. It doesn't force anything."
After the committee voted to dissolve the task force, and the meeting ended, Heck and the task force members gathered to work out a schedule where they could start meeting, this time as a separate citizen's group, with an eye toward eventually forming an organization of park users who would work with the committee to move the task force plan forward and help raise funds.
After the meeting, Belliveau said she was pleased with the work the task force accomplished.
"I think I got a better perspective on what the community is looking for, and a better direction on how we can move forward," she said. "A lot of times, what happens is we do these recreation plans, we do these five-year plans, and they sit on a shelf and nothing happens. And I think we need to stop that from happening and move forward."
Jamie Taylor may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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