Decatur has a problem: litter.
Residents making their daily commutes and visitors passing through commonly see discarded soda cans, water bottles, burger wrappers and cigarette butts in ditches, medians and street gutters.
When spring arrives, overgrown grass and weeds will camouflage some of the litter, but that too poses a challenge for the city, which hasn’t made maintaining alleys and rights of way a priority in the past three budget cycles. Funds instead during the past year have been dedicated to other projects.
“The beauty of the city — something that’s been very close to my heart — has gone down in the last few years,” Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Dunlap said. “People see it, and they’ve let us know about it, too.”
Mayor Don Kyle did not return calls this week to discuss the issue. But City Council President Gary Hammon said grass, trash and weeds are not the city’s top priorities.
“We can’t go to the bond market and tell them we’re going to use the money to cut grass,” said Hammon, referencing last year’s bond refinancing to generate cash for the Lazy River water ride project at Point Mallard water park.
“Sometimes people don’t look at the whole picture.”
Within the past year, the council has designated nearly $4 million for the Lazy River ride and upgrades at Point Mallard, more than $500,000 toward renovation of the old L&N railroad depot and $50,000 in matching funds on a state grant for a proposed amphitheater at Founder’s Park.
It also committed $470,000 for a heating and cooling system at the Decatur Public Library, $290,000 to repair streets in Deerfoot Estates and $556,560 in matching funds for three road projects.
In fiscal 2011, Parks and Recreation’s budget was slashed $900,000. The department, which has 56 full- and 28 part-time workers, is responsible for mowing, maintenance and landscaping. But money was tight in every department in 2011 as the city faced a $1 million budget deficit.
Though nearly all of the lost revenue has trickled back, officials have not replaced the Parks and Recreation funding, as well as other funding. The department has lost 18 contract part-time workers.
“In 2008, we got close to where we needed to be, as far as things being maintained like they should be,” Dunlap said. “Now we just don’t have the money or the manpower to do things we need to do.”
More to maintain
Since the cut in 2011, Parks and Recreation has been assigned more properties to maintain. Among those is one officials consider a cornerstone to revitalizing downtown: the nearly $1 million streetscape project on Second Avenue Southeast. A second streetscape project runs along First Avenue Southeast. But the city did not appropriate funding to maintain them, according to Dunlap and finance records.
“They don’t look too bad now, but just wait until spring,” Dunlap said. “Those beds will be covered in weeds.
“I’m thinking surely we didn’t make this investment downtown just to let it go.”
The department requested $7.8 million for fiscal 2013 and was approved for $6.6 million. It relies heavily on seasonal employees in the spring and summer, when the part-time ranks swell by several dozen, Personnel Director Ken Smith said. Dunlap requested $400,000 for part-time pay, a figure comparable to past years, and was allotted $200,000. Former Mayor Don Stanford’s administration created the 2013 budget, and the council approved it in October.
Decatur’s appearance and its role in economic development are at the forefront of leaders’ minds, but budget cuts forced the city to be creative, said Crystal Brown, vice president of business development for the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce.
“Everyone is keenly aware of it, and the city has done the best job it can,” Brown said. “We’ll be fortunate to get the boost in revenue from all the new retail this spring at a time when we really need it.”
More than two years of neglect is showing in overgrown alleys, drainage ditches and retention ponds. Since the cuts, public rights of way have been mowed just twice a year, rather than once every three to four weeks as it used to be.
But while some city properties are unkept, Decatur continues to assess fines against residents for overgrown lawns and shrubs. It plans to collect $20,000 in weed abatement fees this year, finance records show.
‘Focus on basics’
District 1 Councilmen Billy Jackson long has implored his fellow council members to delay big-ticket projects and focus on “doing the basics.”
“I’m all for adding attractions at Point Mallard and these other projects, but we’ve got to take care of the necessities first,” Jackson said. “How can we tell residents to clean up their yards when we’re not taking care of our alleys and medians?”
Recently, District 4 Councilman Charles Kirby joined Jackson on the issue.
“We need to get our properties cleaned up,” Kirby wrote in an email. “We need to get our alleys maintained, and we need to get organized to get our grass cut without whining to the people that we don’t have enough money.”
A second department charged with keeping Decatur clean, Landscaping and Beautification, is funded at a third of what it was seven years ago, from nearly $1 million in 2006 to just under $300,000. Some of its duties have been transferred to Parks and Recreation.
During the week, litter crews pick up trash around Decatur, averaging 40 bags a day, beautification coordinator Yvonne Krenkel said.
“One day last week they went to Wilson Morgan Park and got 80 bags,” Krenkel said. “Every Monday morning, they go to The Brick (city) parking lot and pick up trash from the weekend, and they get around two bags. People need to stop throwing it out.”
Decatur’s appearance in some areas could have a negative impact during a time when the city is trying to attract young families
and professionals, Dunlap said.
“What a community looks like can have a lot to do with where people choose to live,” he said. “We try to make things look as pretty as they can, but it’s hard when you don’t have the money. It’s just a matter of priorities.”
It’s unclear what the mayor thinks, but Hammon said the council’s priorities will
be reviewed again this spring.
“At mid-year review, we’ll see how the revenues are coming in, and if we have the money, we’ll look at starting some things back again,” Hammon said.
Tiffeny Owens can be reached at 256-340-2440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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