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The lap pool at the North Boulder Recreation Center sat empty during part of April. The Boulder City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a master plan for Boulder Parks and Recreation that acknowledges the staff shortages the department is facing. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
The lap pool at the North Boulder Recreation Center sat empty during part of April. The Boulder City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a master plan for Boulder Parks and Recreation that acknowledges the staff shortages the department is facing. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

As it continues to face staffing shortages and budget constraints, Boulder Parks and Recreation now has a newly updated master plan that prioritizes the services that are important to the community and generally guides the department’s five-year future.

The City Council on Thursday unanimously approved the plan, an update of the department’s 2014 master plan, following a relatively short public hearing in which five people spoke.

Moving forward, the Parks and Recreation department intends to focus on what Boulder community members have said are the most important to support with tax funding: low-income communities, older adults and those with disabilities. These are the areas in which taxpayers would most like to see their money spent.

“Recognizing our critical role in promoting community health and well-being, this master plan includes policy guidance that will help us ensure that Boulder’s tax investments in parks and recreation are optimized for community benefit,” Natural Resources Senior Manager Regina Elsner said Thursday.

More than anything, the master plan is honest about the department’s financial reality — something City Council members commended.

“I’m impressed that we … put the emphasis on the fiscally constrained scenario. We don’t like it. You don’t like it. But that’s kind of where we are at the moment, and I appreciate the realism in dealing with that,” Councilmember Mark Wallach said. “We can always have a later conversation about providing additional funding for parks.”

The department’s currently approved funding totals about $29 million, including capital improvement projects, recreational programs and services, operations and maintenance and administrative costs.

Based on the city’s research, this represents about a $4.7 million gap in what’s needed to maintain its current assets and to provide the ongoing and increased funding for community benefit programming that Boulder residents have said they want.

An estimated $1 million gap must be closed to address affordability issues for lower income Boulder residents and to maintain programming the community supports, the Parks and Recreation department noted.

Funding is not keeping pace with the community’s expectations for programming and access discounts for youth and older adults, financial aid for low-income individuals and families and for the city’s programs supporting people living with disabilities and youth from low-income families.

“Maintaining only the current level of funding will require difficult conversations with the community about right-sizing core services and expectations from the community and this plan provides policy direction to guide those conversations,” Elsner said.

The master plan identifies additional funding sources, at least some that are necessary without a reduction in services. Grants and philanthropy, for example, can serve as one-time funding infusions to support specific projects or programs.

And the department is considering re-examining non-resident fees and commercial uses in parks and exploring other entrepreneurial efforts. The city considers anyone who lives or works in the city a resident.

In previous discussions, the City Council supported these ideas but emphasized that community conversations with an eye toward equity would be important.

Those who spoke in the public hearing generally supported the master plan, though some expressed frustrations about the encampments of people experiencing homelessness that are located in some of Boulder’s public parks.

The fact that the master plan has to mention the impact of such encampments on the city’s Parks and Recreation staff members is disconcerting, some residents said Thursday.

“The parks and open spaces are the lifeblood of a community,” resident Shari Hack said. “As I was reading through the master plan, I thought how sad that the master plan refers to illegal encampments.”

According to the master plan adopted Thursday, given the high price of land in Boulder and the city’s growth boundary limiting development, and limited funding sources, adding new parkland is currently not feasible.

However, in an email sent to the City Council before the meeting, former Parks and Recreation Advisory Board member Crystal Gray pushed back on that notion.

“I understand the rationale behind this, but I wouldn’t shut the door on creative ideas that might come forward as a result of our fast changing climate as well as land use changes,” Gray wrote in the email. “One idea is changing streets from ‘auto thru ways’ to bike and pedestrian corridors dotted with mini parks that become gathering areas for neighborhoods and safer streets for bikes.”

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