Not A Day At The Beach

October 6, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Fees for access to the beach and the water splash area at Millennium Park dominated the Kent County Commission's discussion about the upcoming fiscal year budgets. And at times, the talk got a tad testy and included comments about city parks.

Commissioner Dick Bulkowski asked his fellow board members if those fees, part of a pilot program that commissioners initiated last summer, could be removed from the park's operational budget — which is part of the county's general fund.

Bulkowski said the new charges kept attendance down at the beach this summer when compared to the previous summer, the first year the beach and water area were open to the public. The fees were in effect from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Bulkowski argued that it wasn't necessary to include funds for Millennium Park in the general fund this early.

"These [fees] won't be anticipated until next summer," he said.

Bulkowski also pointed out that Allegan County dropped charges this year at four parks, which reportedly increased attendance, while Grand Rapids raised its fees to swim at city pools this season. He said the result was fewer residents swam at Richmond Park.

Bulkowski noted that Mayor George Heartwell was putting together a citizens' committee that will be charged with offering suggestions to the city on how it can improve operations for the park system. He thought the county should do the same, because the Millennium Park committee doesn't discuss admission fees and Kent County doesn't have a parks commission that talks about those charges, either.

" … Have some citizens look at this and come back to the committee," said Bulkowski.

Kent County Chairman Roger Morgan said he would take Bulkowski's suggestion under advisement and possibly bring it up at a future date.

But Commissioner David Morren told Bulkowski that a budget meeting was not the proper time to discuss park fees, and he said just because the city does something, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea.

"To look at that, I think, is a poor example to look at," said Morren of the city's citizens committee.

"Our county parks are much more well-maintained than the city parks. The difference is night and day," added Commission Vice Chairman Dan Koorndyk.

Koorndyk said the general fund could be amended later and that the fee discussion should be postponed until the report on the pilot program is filed with the commission.

The program this past summer charged those ages 16 and over $3 to gain entry to the beach and splash area, while kids ages 3 to 15 were charged $1. Seniors 63 and over were charged $2.  Entering the park itself, though, was free of charge.

County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio said the budget had to go forward because the fiscal year begins on Jan. 1 and Millennium Park needs the funding for year-round operations. Roughly $775,000 has been budgeted for the park's operation next year, and revenue to the account has been projected to be $600,000.

Delabbio acknowledged last March the fees wouldn't be enough to cover the park's entire operations. The county hoped to get $665,000 this summer from the fees, but expectations are that the total will be less than the projected figure.

Commissioners approved the FY07 General Fund Budget, along with six other smaller funds. But they didn't do so unanimously as three board members, including Bulkowski, voted against ratifying the budgets.

"The fact that it's in the budget means that a decision has been made today," said Bulkowski, whose district is in the city, about the park fees.

The county's general fund is set at $165.5 million for the coming year. It was $154.1 million in FY06, $148.9 million in FY05, and $150.4 million in FY04.

"Economics affects us all. It's just happened to affect the city more than the county," said Commissioner Paul Mayhue, who also represents Grand Rapids on the board. "We need to give [the park fees] an honest look. I don't think we should have the fees."    

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