Future of Stark Parks in voters’ hands

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Update 3/17/20: Ohio called off its primary March 17 hours before the polls were set to open. Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton issued a public health order closing polling locations statewide.

“To conduct an election at this time would force poll workers and voters to face an unacceptable risk of contracting COVID-19,” the order read.

The future of Stark County Park District will soon be decided by the voters of Stark County. 

A 1-mill levy — Issue 20 on the ballot — to maintain funding for the park district is on the March 17 ballot. If the levy fails, it means the park will lose its $7 million in taxpayer funding in 2021.

Although the park district has one more shot in November to get the levy passed, the repercussions of a no vote in March will be felt immediately, said Bob Fonte, director of Stark Parks.

“If we fail this next Tuesday, I’ve already told the staff that we can’t take animals at the rehabilitation building on Wednesday,” he said. “We won’t be able to open the marinas in May.”

The park’s existing 1-mill levy, voted on in 2012, is set to expire at the end of this year. 

The voters of Stark County already shot down the eight-year replacement levy and a 0.2-mill increase to park funding in November. The vote was 60%, or 45,467 votes, against the tax levy and 40%, or 30,538, in favor of it.

“They didn’t want to pay for an increase, so we backed it off for a renewal,” Fonte said. 

Opposing views

The levy is facing opposition from the Stark County Farm Bureau. Bill Brown, president of the county farm bureau, sent out a letter to members urging them to vote against the levy that would continue to fund Stark Parks.

“Our concerns remain the same as last fall that the park district has not backed down from taking farmland for trails,” the letter stated.

Their chief complaint with Stark Parks is over private property rights. Nick Kennedy, organization director for Stark County Farm Bureau, said the park district put out a map several years ago showing future proposed trail systems, some of which were drawn through members’ farmland.

“We have a lot of people that were upset to see their property on a map with a line drawn through it,” he said. 

Kennedy said they’ve tried to talk to the park’s board about the proposed trails, but they feel they aren’t being heard. The concern is that the park will use or threaten to use eminent domain to get the land for the trails.

“If they’re not willing to listen to us, we need to go after their purse strings,” he said. 

Kennedy and Browne said they’re not trying to close the parks. They just want the park board to listen to them and be more open in conversation. 

Although the park district has the power of eminent domain, Fonte said they’ve never abused it or threatened people with it. The park district has about 120 miles of trail, much of it created from donated right-of-ways.

Kennedy said farm bureau isn’t the only reason the park levy failed in November. The farm bureau doesn’t have 45,000 members in the county. 

“We’re just a small piece of the pie. It’s not farm bureau versus park district,” he said. 

 

Worst case scenario

Fonte said they have to plan for the worst if the levy doesn’t pass on March 17.

“We have to have enough money to finish paying bills by end of the year,” he said. 

Taxpayer money makes up about 41% of the park’s income. Grants make up about 29% and 30% comes from other sources like rentals, gift shop sales and donations. 

The only guaranteed funding, though, is the levy. Much of the grant funding is dependent on the levy funding to match grant funding.

That means coming up with a plan to close parks one by one, mothballing about a dozen buildings the park maintains and laying off employees.

New animals could not be taken in at the Joseph J. and Helen M. Sommer Wildlife Conservation Center because they wouldn’t be able to care for them through the entire recuperation process, Fonte said. The center’s permanent residents, a couple dozen animals used in park programming, will have to be rehomed to another licensed wildlife facility.

“From there, we’d work out a schedule of building we’d have to shutter and which ones we’d keep open,” Fonte said.

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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