Citing maintenance needs, Missoula Parks and Rec seeks 7.5 percent budget increase

Donna Gaukler, director of Missoula Parks and Recreation, right, is seeking a 7.5 percent budget increase to maintain the city’s growing network of parks, trails, open space and other holdings. (Missoula Current file photo)

Cracking courts, outdated playgrounds and a deteriorating bridge prompted Missoula Parks and Recreation on Wednesday to seek $3 million next fiscal year to tackle major renovations to existing infrastructure.

The department’s request for capital improvements also covered a range of park and trail upgrades and operational efficiencies, including energy improvements to Splash Montana and funding to remove the landscaped medians from North Reserve Street to simplify maintenance.

With the budgeting season in full bloom, the department presented its needs to members of the City Council. In doing so, it warned of a growing maintenance backlog as Missoula’s parks, trails and other holdings expand.

“By Fiscal Year 2020, we have an identified need of $1.28 million in new infrastructure that has not been funded,” said department director Donna Gaukler. “We have a Fiscal Year 2019 need of $721,000. We realize it doesn’t make a lot of sense to even make that ask.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen will present his proposed budget later this summer after hearing from individual departments – and after the Montana Department of Revenue releases this year’s tax valuations.

Members of the council expect the mayor to make significant investments in maintenance, including parks and trails, in the FY 2019 budget.

“It’s worth noting the mayor in his letter talked about taking a big bite out of the park maintenance needs that we have,” said council president Bryan von Lossberg. “I’m confident in the administration’s budget, we’re going to see significant investment around these sorts of issues.”

The general fund budget for parks and recreation currently stands at $5.82 million, though the department is seeking a 7.5 percent increase to $6.2 million. The current budget, Gaukler said, isn’t enough to cover the department’s growing list of responsibilities around maintenance and upkeep.

“We understand this is a substantial change in numbers,” she said. “We wanted to show you, predominantly what that does, is keep the 60 percent for maintenance constant.”

Those maintenance costs continue to increase as Missoula grows. Last year, the city opened a downtown Art Park, the South Reserve Street pedestrian bridge and the Orange Street roundabout, among other additions, adding $88,000 in unfunded maintenance costs.

Gaukler said additional projects expected to come online this year will add an another $193,000 in maintenance costs. Other costs, identified as cyclical in the budget, are also mounting, including some that carry high dollar figures, such as the Northside pedestrian bridge.

The bridge, she said, is in structural decay.

“We’d like to get the engineering work done as soon as possible,” she said. “We need funding to go forward with that and funding to implement it. We’re at the point where we’re doing monthly inspections and hiring annual engineering inspections, so that’s how close we’re getting to failure of that bridge where we’d have to close it.”

The department also submitted requests to achieve operational efficiencies, such as a wider mower and a pool liner for Splash Montana to conserve energy. It’s also looking to remove the landscaped medians on Reserve Street to reduce costs.

“Traffic is 45 mph and it’s very congested, so every time we go out to do work on a median, it’s $4,000 to $6,000 in cost to hire a company to go out, set up and close down lanes,” Gaukler said. “We’re getting to the medians about 1.5 times a year to do weed mitigation. We’re recommending turning them into hardscape so that we can maintain them for less money.”