There's 2.6 million in the state's FY 2013 budget to restore World War II Memorial Park to its former glory, but nothing for upkeep.
Yesterday, RI Department of Environmental Management DEM Director Janet Coit and DEM Associate Director Larry Mouradjian laid out the facts and the numbers for the Budget Commission, asking them for their aid in figuring out either a less ambitious plan that would require less maintenance, or some sort of revenue stream for the park that would fund its care.
The original plan laid out in June when the RI House approved the restoration included the removal of the remains of the now-drained, man-made swimming pond known locally as “Social Ocean” (re-filled briefly for Autumnfest) and the construction of a modern new “splash pad” in its place to provide a cool retreat for city children in the summer.
The money was also intended to fund a new Little League field and landscaping improvements to make the park more appropriate for passive recreational activities.
Coit and Mouradjian offered two options, the first, focusing on passive recreation, would require $85,000 per year for upkeep. The second, involving passive, active recreation and a splash park, would cost $320,000 per year.
Mouradjian noted the irony of the situation — that millions were allocated to restoring the park but nothing set aside for upkeep. But, he said, regardless of the irony, the challenge remained for city and DEM to figure out.
Coit said the DEM, which has suffered a 59 percent reduction in its staff, from 110 in 2001 to 45 in 2012, doesn't have the manpower or funding to maintain the park. "It's meant a kind of triage management approach," said Coit.
That approach, she said, is based on the number of people who frequent each park, resulting in cutting funding to operate World War II Park and Beach Pond in Exeter in 2008.
Coit referenced the 2008 diving accident that paralyzed Brett Roy and a drowning there in October of 2008, as examples of the importance of properly staffing any new features added to the park. She noted 10 state parks had been given over to local municipal control, including parks in Warwick, Bristol, Pawtucket, Johnston, Burriville and North Providence.
The Budget Commission, to a member, received the news with grim, tight-lipped frowns. The panel has been tasked with addressing the city's own funding crisis, a cumulative $15 million deficit, making city-funded maintenance of the park its own challenge.
Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, (D-Dist. 49), who attended the meeting and spent about 10 minutes beforehand speaking with Mouradjian, took the podium after DEM's presentation, calling the situation "class warfare."
"Maybe there isn't a clear understanding of the financial position the city is in," Baldelli-Hunt said.
She referenced the horseback riding and golf course at Goddard State Park, and asked why those amenities were afforded in the more affluent Warwick/East Greenwich area, when basic staffing isn't provided for World War II Memorial Park. "This is choosing to take advantage of a community just because we are Woonsocket, Rhode Island," she said, "This is class warfare, don't be mistaken."
Coit said she was hurt by Baldelli-Hunt's assertion, and that she agreed the situation is a shame. "It absolutely stinks and I take to heart what you said," Coit said.
Mouradjian said the horse stables and golf course at Goddard State Park each provide revenue to the park that pay for themselves. He said he and Coit hoped to work out something similar at World War II Park. "If you really want the park open, the real solution, other than to point fingers, is to sit down and try to figure out a cooperative management strategy that identifies reasonable contributions, resources and combination of funding, whether it's certain funding to build it, certain funding to run it..." he said.
Budget Commission member and City Council President John Ward asked how the state's acquisition of Rocky Point in Warwick was being funded. Coit said there was a $10 million bond for acquiring the site, and that they're planning a public-private partnership with a restaurant operating on the site to generate revenue to maintain the park.
Baldelli-Hunt was not swayed. She said the city has no tourism, and no reasonable avenue of generating revenue at the park. "This is insulting to the city of Woonsocket," she said, "You do not live the life that we live."
"Let me just suggest, with all due respect, that talking about class warfare and pointing fingers are not really going to solve this," Coit said.
Commission member Mayor Leo Fontaine thanked Coit for her work and effort to figure out how to rebuild and maintain the park, a challenge that was waiting for her when she took on the job at DEM. But, he said, "It doesn't discount the concern that our representative has aired rather eloquently that this park has been a football kicked around for a long time." Fontaine said the park's disrepair is an affront.
"It's an insult to our veterans. This is World War II Memorial State Park. It's an insult to the men and women who gave their lives for our country, that they've got grass and three-foot weeds growing around the monument to their lives. And how any state official or government can sit there and sleep with that on their conscience is very difficult for me to undersand," Fontaine said.
Fontaine said he hoped the Budget Commission and DEM could form a working group to figure out a solution. Coit agreed, saying they needed to work together so that whatever plan is decided on for improving the park can be maintained.
Mark Bailargeon, city councilman from 1974 to 1976, reminded the Budget Commission that there is a memorandum of agreement between the city and state that the state would maintain the park, and urged them to hold the state to it.
The Budget Commission voted to form a working group with the DEM to find a solution to funding the park's upkeep.
After the meeting both Coit and Mouradjian said they were just trying to deal as well as they could with the DEM's tight funding and the General Assembly's apparent lack of foresight in planning for the upkeep of the park once it was rebuilt.