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Collaboration called key for parks system

S.L. City and County must work together, recreation study says

Youngsters participate in a swim class at the Fairmont Aquatic Center on Tuesday.
Youngsters participate in a swim class at the Fairmont Aquatic Center on Tuesday.
Keith Johnson, Deseret News

A recreation expert told the Salt Lake County Council Tuesday that keeping the county's "behemoth" parks and recreation system moving forward in the coming years will require new levels of cooperation between the county and the 16 cities within its borders.

New ideas for the future of the operation, which includes nearly 100 parks, almost 7,000 acres of land, 18 recreation centers, six golf courses, ice centers, swimming pools, an equestrian center and an operating farm must, however, be balanced with the current fiscal crunch that could lead to some downsizing.

Karen Badalamenti, from the Green Play Inc. consulting group, presented findings Tuesday of an exhaustive study of the Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation Department. While praising much of the operation, she noted the size and scope of the department's responsibilities would need to coordinate closely with the work being done by individual cities.

"The real needs will be in establishing collaboration," Badalamenti said. "You're all serving the same clientele … and will need to seek to not duplicate services by working with municipalities."

Erin Litvack, Salt Lake County Community Services director, said the study provides a new set of evaluation tools.

"For us, the entire study is an opportunity to see what we can do even better," she said. "It's a step-back look … we've seen what things we're doing well and where to look closer for improvement."

Litvack noted that in the current budget-reduction environment, changes to the parks and recreation system that come with a price tag will likely be put on hold as the department struggles to find cost savings. Mayor Peter Corroon's office has posited some budget cuts for the coming year, including a reducing operational hours and closing rec centers on Sundays. Litvack said the department will work to mitigate the impact of those possible cuts.

"In the event closures are necessary, we'd likely look at trying to keep the most utilized facilities open," she said. "It will not be painless, but it's a part of the situation we're in … making hard choices."

In spite of the current financial struggle, Litvack said suggestions in the study to improve efficiency without expense and steps toward establishing ongoing communication and collaboration with county municipalities were already in the works.

Cottonwood Heights parks and recreation director Mike Peterson lauded the study.

Peterson, who participated in the study as part of a panel of city representatives, said the current population of the county, and its expected growth, requires that all the entities that provide parks and recreation services work together.

"Once upon a time, there were a handful of cities and then the unincorporated county," he said. "Now, it's wall to wall … and collaboration is the key."

Peterson said Cottonwood Heights is working with the county and school districts on a number of facility-sharing programs, ideas he said that need to be looked at on a bigger scale.

"I think it's critical … now that the momentum is moving to keep it going," he said. "And I hope the county can take a leadership role in pulling people together."

Litvack said some of that work has begun in talks with four municipalities about those cities taking over neighborhood parks within their boundaries, but owned and maintained by the county.

"Some details need to be worked out, but philosophically, it makes sense," Peterson said. "For most of those parks, about 90 percent of the users are the local … so, they should be controlled by their host cities."