Unequal park funding smacks of favoritism, critics say

May 3, 2017

Hickory Hills plans to build a new lodge, and expand nature trails and its popular disc golf course.
Credit Grand Traverse Ski Club

Three years ago, voters in Traverse City were asked if they wanted to spend more money on parks. They said “yes,” and a special fund was set up for that purpose. The parks funding comes from the Brown Bridge Trust Fund – a savings account of oil and gas royalties from the Brown Bridge Quiet Area south of Traverse City.

Voters decided that for the next five years any amount over $12 million in the fund would go towards park improvements.

At the time, the Traverse City commission predicted there would be about $3 million for parks, so they promised $1.5 million to Hickory Hills. 

Deni Scrudato, chair of the Brown Bridge Advisory Committee, says that move was unfair.

“I was so disappointed that the city commission saw nothing wrong with pledging up to $1.5 million of that money … of that cookie jar if you will, to one entity,” says Scrudato.

Scrudato says supporters of Hickory Hills ran an aggressive and organized campaign. She says the wording on the ballot led voters to believe all city parks would get Brown Bridge funding - and not just Hickory Hills.

Brown Bridge Advisory Committee Vice Chair Nelson Asper agrees.

“I do firmly believe the ballot was extremely misleading,” says Asper. “The public thinks, ‘oh good, they’re going to improve a lot of the parks.’ We, as the BBAC, feel that ballot should have been much more informative as to exactly what was going to happen.”

The Hickory Hills master plan shows a new lodge and expanded trails.

'Incredible community support' 

Preserve Hickory, the group spearheading the improvement campaign for Hickory Hills, wants to expand the popular disc golf course, build a new lodge and expand nature trails, among other projects.

Mac McClelland, chairman of the Hickory Hills Advisory Committee, says supporters of Hickory Hills had been organizing for years and were able to get their proposal ready quickly.

“We’ve had incredible community support,” says McClelland. “Certainly there’s going to be people who feel they didn’t get their fair share but there’s certainly dollars available for those projects.”

Deni Scrudato is concerned about the long-term. She says the extra money for parks won't last forever.

“The gas and oil wells on the property out at the Brown Bridge Quiet Area that generate the money in the first place, the royalties the city gets from those wells, well … production is tapering off,” says Scrudato.

It didn’t help that there was a sharp drop in the price of oil shortly after the parks fund was set up.

City Treasurer Bill Twietmeyer says the city is only averaging $120,000 a year in royalties. That’s a third of what they received in the past.

“What it boils down to is, the timing couldn’t be worse,” says Twietmeyer. “We looked at the prior 15 years and the average amount that went into Brown Bridge Trust from oil royalties averaged about $380,000 a year.”

Right now, city officials think they'll be about $200,000 short of the original $3 million they thought they would have for parks.

Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers

Some parks get 'preferred status'  

Now the city wants to dip into the fund again – this time for improvements to Lay Park on Union Street. But Mayor Jim Carruthers says the city is playing favorites. At a commission meeting earlier this month, Carruthers said Hannah Park – close to his home – has been asking for funding for 15 years.

“I’m just questioning the fact that we’ve basically elevated [Lay Park] to preferred status when a lot of other parks have been out there for a long time on our capital improvement plan,” says Carruthers. “Parks and Rec is working a lot of other projects. I understand the reasoning but it is politics that has moved this forward.”

Right now, the city is committed to five park projects totaling $1.8 million, but the Brown Bridge Trust Parks Improvement Fund – the special portion of the trust fund designated for parks – only has $1.5 million.

Carruthers says the city must review projects more carefully.

“We’ve hired a new Parks and Rec director, and it’s my hope they will spend more time vetting projects and putting forward budgets that will support funding these projects,” he says.

A full financial report on the Brown Bridge Parks Trust Fund is expected to be presented to the city commission next week.