'Creative budgeting' brings park to local kids

Lots of people complain about government not working, but we have a story of government working very well, indeed.

The story started a year ago, when a routine safety evaluation of all the city’s parks showed that three sets of playground equipment needed to be taken out. At Riverside Park, there was a second, newer set that could remain. But late last fall city officials had to remove the only play equipment at Sechler, Grant and John North parks.

City officials looked for a solution, but only had enough money to do two parks this summer and the other in 2007, with about $25,000 for Grant and $40,000 for Sechler. Another $25,000 or so would be budget in 2007 for John North.

The plan looked good on paper.  But parents, kids and daycare providers around John North park weren’t looking at paper; they were looking at a patch of grass and dirt – and a whole summer without much to do.

The parents and daycare providers made it clear that they’d like the city to take another look at the situation. Ruth and Bill Hoekstra were concerned about what to with their little Lucas, a two-year-old.

“It just happens to be the only park we can walk to without a half day hike,” said Ruth. And long hikes weren’t on her agenda this summer, because she was pregnant with little Elise, now five weeks old. She talked to neighbors and they talked to others, and soon City Councilman Arnie Nelson added his voice to the conversation.

“We got it done and it’s delightful,” he said simply.

Joel Walinski, assistant director of public works, fleshed out the details a bit more. He said he and the staff looked to see whether there might be a way to get the work done without breaking the budget.

(Now, where’s that MasterCard when you need it?)

Turns out, there was about $40,000 set aside in the budget this year to do some improvements at the Ice Arena, work that wouldn’t be done until spring. Park officials used some of that money this summer, then replace it with money from the new budget after the first of the year. That let the city work with Webber Recreation in Hastings to buy and install three sets of equipment at the same time. “By working with the manufacturer we were able to capture some savings,” Joel said.

Community volunteers helped with some work at Sechler Park, and city workers were used to finish the minimal site preparation needed at the other parks.

The new equipment arrived before little Elise did, so Lucas had a chance to try it out. He wasn’t around the day we shot photos in the park, but his mom says he agrees with their assessment of the new space.  

“He likes it a lot.”