Former Lodi Parks and Recreation Director Ron Williamson wasn’t impressed when more than 100 citizens attended two public workshops in late January to discuss the department’s most pressing needs: An indoor sports center, an aquatics complex and the development of DeBenedetti Park.
“Been there, done that,” said Williamson, who spent more than 30 years with the department, the last 15 as director.
It’s not that Williamson, now retired, didn’t view the workshops as constructive or necessary. He just wasn’t convinced it would make a difference.
At least it hadn’t in his 30 years, said Williamson, adding that the concept wasn’t a new one.
“I’ve seen it too many times. You hold a public meeting and the community shows up and voices support for projects, and then nothing happens. It’s time something happened,” Williamson said.
Ken Sasaki, chairman of the Parks and Rec Commission, agrees.
“These aren’t new issues. There’s been talk about the three main priorities since the early 1990s,” Sasaki said. “We’ve had tremendous public response on the city’s recreational priorities.”
John Johnson, president of the nonprofit Lodi Sports Foundation, a group whose main priority is to bring an indoor sports center to the city, said the City Council needs to address the city’s recreational needs.
Lodi Councilman Keith Land said the city’s elected officials have been more than responsive to Lodi’s recreational needs.
“We’ve completely renovated nearly every park in Lodi,” Land said. “In the last four years I can’t think of a project the Parks and Rec Department has brought to council that wasn’t funded. It’s hard to please everyone when there’s so many activities. But I believe the city provides excellent parks and recreation service.”
While Johnson said he understands the need for high-cost projects like new police and fire buildings, he also believes if the city can spend millions on Hutchins Street Square and the redevelopment of downtown, it can find ways to fund an indoor sports center or an aquatics complex.
He said it’s simple why the projects don’t come to fruition: Kids don’t vote.
While it may — or may not — be as simple as that, there is little doubt that the city’s recreational programs, many already at capacity, continue to grow despite the lack of new venues.
Does Lodi really have a need for more recreational facilities, and, if so, what are those needs and is funding available? And, if there is a need and funding is available, why isn’t it being addressed and what impact will it have on the city?
Is there a facility need?
Those are questions the city faces, and Roger Baltz, a relative newcomer to Lodi, will play a significant role in the answers.
Baltz, a former county administrator from Palatka, Fla., was named the parks and recreation director last November, taking over for Williamson.
Since his first day on the job in mid-January, Baltz has been in a frantic race to acquaint himself with the issues at hand.
Baltz said there is no question that Lodi is in need of new recreational facilities.
Williamson agrees, saying that the last major recreational complex that was built was Salas Park in the early ‘70s. The city’s population at that time was approximately 30,000.
Lodi’s population has doubled since.
“Lodi is facility poor,” Baltz said, adding that the city has compensated over the years by using all the resources available. He cited the city’s joint-use agreement with the Lodi Unified School District and its agreement with the Grape Festival organizers as prime examples. (The joint-use agreement has become a source of contention lately, particularly the shared use of the swimming pools at Tokay and Lodi high schools.)
Last year, the school district bumped the Lodi City Swim Club from a scheduled practice — on the day of the practice — for a school function.
John Griffin, who runs the city’s swim program, said at a recent meeting that since the incident the school district has been slowly phasing out the city’s use of the pools.
With the swim program’s number of participants rising annually, Griffin said the pool at Blakely Park isn’t big enough to meet the demand, and as a result a large number of kids are being left out.
Johnson said the city is facing similar problems with its basketball programs.
More than 100 kids were unable to play this year because of a lack of space, he said.
Currently, the city leases the Grape Pavilion to help ease the overcrowding and has been in talks with the Lodi Armory and the American Legion about using their buildings as well.
Addressing the needs
Johnson is perhaps the most staunch advocate that the city desperately needs an indoor sports center, which would cost around $5 to $7 million, while Griffin is lobbying hard for an aquatics complex, which could cost the city another $2.5 to $3.5 million.
Both have supporters, as shown by the almost unanimous support the projects drew from the roughly 100 citizens that attended the public workshops in January.
Swimming and basketball aren’t the only programs that have boomed over the years.
Take a trip to Salas Park on a fall afternoon and you’ll see football, soccer and softball teams covering nearly every square inch of the property.
Many say the development of DeBenedetti Park, city-owned land located on Lower Sacramento Road between Kettleman Lane and Harney Lane, would alleviate the congestion at Salas.
The cost of developing DeBenedetti, which was dedicated in 1990, has been estimated at around $8 to $11 million, which includes maintaining it as a storm basin.
According to a 1993 master plan, the 49 acres would accommodate six baseball and softball diamonds and several interchangeable football and soccer fields.
While Baltz feels that it’s necessary to use agreements with the school district and the community, he said there are economic and scheduling advantages to be had with facilities owned and controlled by the city.
Land said the city has done a tremendous job of pooling all of its resources, and even agrees the city should move forward and look for additional space.
“I wouldn’t say the city is behind the curve, but we need our own facilities. Lodi is known for providing service to most of northern San Joaquin County. That has a large impact on our programs,” Land said.
The funding factor
From a financial standpoint, Lodi taxpayers could have reservations about funding million-dollar projects that serve kids from outside the city limits.
Currently, all children in Lodi Unified School District are eligible for city parks and recreation programs.
From a budget standpoint, the Parks and Rec Department draws enough money to pay the bills, including maintenance and staff members — just like the other city departments.
A study of the last four city budgets shows that each department has consistently received the same percentage of the budget over the four-year period.
The biggest chunk went to public utilities, which totaled around 34 percent of the overall city budget each year. Public safety received between 23 and 24 percent each year, followed by the general government category at 21 to 22 percent, transportation between 6 and 7 percent, parks and recreation at just over 5 percent and community and economic development around 5 percent.
Those numbers don’t reflect capital project spending, which isn’t included in the operating budget.
For several years now the Parks and Rec Department has had a capital budget of $150,000 a year.
The department also secures funding from federal Community Development Block Grants, which can run to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
The problem is funds from the capital budget and CDBG grants aren’t always put to their intended use.
For example, the city recently transferred CDBG funding from the Parks and Rec Department to go toward a Downtown parking garage.
Parks and Recreation Commissioner Bob Johnson said projects that are funded by the grants are usually high-cost items, and the department has to pool the money over years.
The grants must be used for specific purposes in a specific area, and that area has primarily been the Eastside, he said.
And that’s the main reason why the most often proposed site of an indoor sports center is on Eastside property next to the department offices.
Money from the capital budget is sometimes used for maintenance, such as the renovation of the restrooms at the Grape Bowl that cost $25,000, when the money should have come from the operating budget, Johnson said.
Another problem for the department has been a decrease in staff. In 1993, the department had 36 employees. That number was down to just 26 by 2000. No other department lost more than two staff members over that same period.
“We haven’t had the manpower to maintain the parks,” Johnson said.
Williamson said the department was always budgeted enough to pay the workers and keep up maintenance.
“I was basically a patchwork man,” he said.
As for comparisons to other cities of similar size, Lodi seems to fare well against other cities in San Joaquin County, but no so well against cities in Sacramento County.
In 1999-2000, Lodi’s Parks and Rec Department received almost $2.6 million (5.3 percent) out of an overall operating budget of over $49 million.
In the same year, the city of Roseville’s overall budget was $62.6 million, with $9.3 million (14.9 percent) going to parks and recreation. Vacaville received $5.7 million (6.9 percent) out of an overall budget of $82 million, while Woodland received $3.5 million out of an overall budget of only $27.2 million (12.9 percent).
Bob Johnson said most cities in Sacramento County are booming, therefore they’re raising large amounts of money through development impact fees.
Most of those areas are building their basic park system, while Lodi has already accomplished that, he said.
Also, with an ordinance that only allows 2 percent growth yearly, Lodi doesn’t receive as much money from impact fees.
The department receives between $400,000 and $500,000 a year from the fees, Baltz said. The city is looking into raising the fees, he said.
It almost seems certain that funding for an indoor sports center, aquatics complex or development of DeBenedetti Park won’t come from the general fund.
The city should piggyback money for a new indoor recreation center onto the bond that will be needed to build a new police center, John Johnson said.
Parks and Rec commissioner Ed Wall would like to know how much money would be generated from a quarter-cent sales tax.
But bonds and tax hikes would be for naught if the council isn’t on the same page.
Land, who said an aquatics park on the Westside off Vine Street is on the city’s master plan and that several properties on the Eastside have already been purchased for an indoor sports center, said he wouldn’t support a sales tax.
“I see the projects being more of a joint-funding source. There should be opportunities for grants, community donations and Prop. 12 funding,” said Land, who added that he might support a revenue bond.
Proposition 12 is a $2.1 billion park bond measure approved by voters in last March’s primary.
The commission is already looking at ways to cut costs on the expensive projects. It has been proposed that if an aquatics complex were built at DeBenedetti Park, it would save the city the cost of having to purchase more land.
Though new venues cost money, the lack of venues may drain money away from Lodi over the long term.
At the recent meetings, several parents whose kids play in recreational leagues said Lodi could suffer an economic blow if new venues aren’t built, explaining that when they go to events in other cities, not only do they get gas and food in that area, they sometimes stay overnight as well.
Others suggested that local citizens may leave or outsiders may be reluctant to come to Lodi because they feel their recreational needs can’t be met.
Money doesn’t seem to be the only complication. Most agree that the commission has had to juggle too many proposals over the years. There is now a list of projects that includes an indoor sports center, aquatics complex, skate park, BMX park, indoor practice facility for baseball and softball and the development of DeBenedetti and Pixley parks.
“If you’re constantly changing priorities you shoot yourself in the foot,” Baltz said.
And now that the priorities have been set forth, there is a need to figure what the facilities will cost, where they will be built and exactly what they will offer.
The brunt of that responsibility could fall on Baltz, who has constantly been in contact with other cities in an attempt to see how they have secured similar amenities. Also, one of the reasons Baltz was hired was his fund-raising ability.
“He’s done a tremendous job to raise money for and build parks in the cities he’s worked for,” City Manager Dixon Flynn said of Baltz shortly after hiring him.
Baltz knows that the first place you go looking for money is the budget.
For the 2001-03 two-year budget, the Parks and Rec Department requested capital expenditures to the sum of $4.25 million toward the indoor center, $2.2 million for an aquatics complex and another $1 million for DeBenedetti Park.
Sasaki hopes enough interest can be generated to convince the council to move forward with the recreation projects.
“We (commission) have a June 6 target date to have our plans finalized and ready to present to the council. They’ve been very receptive and I feel confident about our prospects.”
John Johnson believes there’s a political factor as well. Council members are more receptive to other departments that wield more political clout, like the police and fire departments, he said.
“If the council members don’t start addressing the recreational needs of the city, the people will eventually create a political action committee and campaign against them,” Johnson said.