County 'Buys' Parkland

April 2, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — While Kent County commissioners recently set a fee schedule for beach and water access at Millennium Park that will include some free days, they also acquired property with beach and water frontage for the park for free.

After commissioners emerged from a closed-door session, Commission Chairman Roger Morgan announced they had agreed to purchase two parcels on Maynard Avenue in Walker from Arnold and Louis Bordewyk. The parcels are located in the north central portion of the park and the county is buying both for $800,000 plus closing costs.

But the lands qualify for a trust fund grant from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which is worth $354,830. The remainder of the purchase price, $445,170, is to come from the Kent County Parks Foundation. Those dollars were donated and are to be used for property purchases. So between the grant and the foundation money, Kent isn’t spending any tax revenue on the transaction, which still has to close.

As for setting fees for the park’s beach area, those who favored the charges beat back a motion to delay the vote. One reason cited for tabling the measure was that the data used to set the fees weren’t deep enough, as the beach has only been open for one season and the 500,000 who visited it last summer did so for free.

“It’s not fair to institute a survey when there is not a baseline. There wasn’t a fee schedule last year, so the data could be incorrect,” said Commissioner Dick Bulkowski.

Another reason to postpone the vote was that the appearance of voting so quickly on the schedule might be seen as a greedy action. The Finance Committee ratified the fees just two days earlier and the full commission normally gets committee items no sooner than nine days later.

“It may be the right thing to do, but it may appear that we’re trying to rush (the vote),” said Commissioner Jack Horton.

But the motion to postpone was easily defeated, 14-4. The vote went ahead because security costs for the park at $289,070 represent 40 percent of its annual budget, which is $722,684. Also, the estimated budget for Millennium Park is 45 percent of the $1.63 million operating budget for the rest of the county parks

“It’s still a free park. It’s a user fee for part of the park,” said Commissioner Gary Rolls.

The fee schedule doesn’t include an admission charge to the park, but to the beach and spray areas. Those charges range from a high of $3 per day to a low of $1, based on age. Free days are also being planned for the beach and the county is looking for corporate support to help underwrite those days.

The schedule becomes effective on Memorial Day and runs through Labor Day.

“Those that use it should pay for it,” said Commissioner Harold Voorhees.

Commissioner Tom Postmus said other counties charge park fees on top of a millage that is in place for the park system. Kent doesn’t have a park millage.

“I support the fees,” said Postmus.

The county estimates the fees will bring in $700,000 this season, if 500,000 people hit the beach. With a collection expense estimated at $35,000, the county feels its net revenue will be $665,000.

“We know the cost to operate Millennium Park exceeds the fee schedule,” said Daryl Delabbio, county administrator and controller.

The schedule also set new fees for shelter houses that are used for picnics. In addition, the fee schedule is being done as a pilot project and will be reviewed after Labor Day.

While Commissioner David Morren called Millennium the “jewel” of the county’s park system, he also noted that the direction the 1,500-acre park has taken was different than was initially intended.

Morren said the original idea was to get all the parkland before any of it was developed, but that hasn’t happened. He added that the county would be buying property for the park for a long time.

“We have to subsidize this high-quality amenity to keep it a quality amenity,” said Morren, who led the park’s property purchases as past board chairman.

“I think this is a good pilot approach and I can support it.”    

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