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County’s limited funding for parks is an equity issue, advocates say

Kids play soccer on a synthetic turf field (via Fairfax County)

Fairfax County Park Authority officials and others are calling for changes in funding to ensure people are able to access recreational amenities and address repairs.

Staff and community groups like the Fairfax County NAACP say the upcoming budget being considered by the county Board of Supervisors is inadequate for addressing the park system’s needs. It could even take longer to take care of those needs with a proposal to lengthen the amount of time between bond votes.

“The fee-based model that we’ve got today doesn’t really create an equitable and accessible parks system,” FCPA Board Chair Bill Bouie said at a Federation of Friends meeting on March 1, citing the county’s One Fairfax policy of equity.

The park authority runs 420 parks, nine rec centers, eight golf courses, two waterparks, playgrounds, 334 miles of trails, and athletic fields, including those at Fairfax County Public Schools. The authority charges visitors for certain amenities, such as golf.

Over the decades, Fairfax County has shifted how it supports the park authority’s operations. One park authority report noted that, in the 1980s, the county’s general fund covered 63% of costs, but that dropped to 46% in 2000 and 34% in 2018.

Meanwhile, the FCPA’s revenue fund, supported by fees and charges to customers, has increased its share of operations costs, going from 37% to 54% and 66% over the same time period.

The park authority is increasingly relying on user fees and charges for funding, rather than county government funds (via Fairfax County Park Authority)

“Unless something changes, the way we do business is only going to become harder,” Kiel Stone, who represents Braddock District on the park authority board, said at the meeting, which brought county officials together with the nonprofit Friends groups that help support parks and other facilities.

Citing equity concerns, staff and community advocates are seeking more funding to improve access to recreational amenities. Currently, the park authority spends over $1 million on scholarships to park programs annually, and it has requested $5 million to expand efforts to reduce costs for customers in need.

The county’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023, which starts on July 1, sets aside $500,000 for the equity effort.

“A lot of our vulnerable communities…are shut out of a whole part of our park system,” said Lydia Lawrence, chair of Fairfax County NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Committee.

The proposed budget also switches the parks bond schedule from a four-year cycle to six-year one. Park authority officials fear that funding will remain the same, hampering its ability to pursue capital projects.

Linwood Gorham, the park authority board’s Mount Vernon District representative, said he thinks the bond cycle should decrease to two years to help with financial planning and oversight, even if that means asking for less money with each round.

While the proposed FY 2023 budget provides nearly $5.9 million for resource management, it only gives the park authority $50,000 out of the nearly $752,000 it requested for natural resources sustainability.

The sustainability funding would support the park authority’s efforts to actively manage over 4,000 acres with activities like controlled burns.

The FCPA’s personnel costs will increase under the advertised budget as part of a countywide effort to improve compensation for workers. The county government’s general fund contribution is slated to increase from $28.3 million to $30 million.

At the Federation of Friends meeting, park authority board members and staff encouraged community members to participate in the Board of Supervisors’ public hearings on the budget, which will take place April 12-14.

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