Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox met with the Northport City Council Thursday morning during a special-called work session to ask leaders there to consider providing additional funding to the Tuscaloosa County Park & Recreation Authority.

The City of Tuscaloosa has held discussions on and off again for nearly a decade regarding the future of PARA, which relies on money from both cities and the Tuscaloosa County Commission to operate and grow.

Problems with the model have been evident for years -- firstly, each government decides how much to give PARA during their annual budget discussions. In lean financial years, funding to outside agencies is often the first place where cuts are made, leaving PARA to come each year, hat-in-hand, and plead with each government agency to not slash its budget.

"Right now, the goal with PARA has been survivability," Maddox opened. "No organization, public or private, can survive just thinking about the next year."

On Thursday, Maddox proposed that all three governing bodies should be evenly funding the organization -- for years, Tuscaloosa and the county commission have funded the vast majority of PARA's operations and while Northport's contributions lag behind.

In 2018, for instance, The city of Tuscaloosa gave PARA $4.3 million. The county provided almost $3 million. Northport contributed just $148,437 to the parks agency that year.

PARA's most recent annual financial reports were not immediately available at the time of this story's publication, but Tuscaloosa's contributions to the agency dipped by 10 percent this year due to the massive decrease in municipal revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The county increased the amount they gave to PARA to help offset that loss.

In the Thursday meeting, Maddox said the cities of Tuscaloosa and Northport should increase the money they give to PARA each year so each government body is giving the agency roughly the same amount per resident.

 

Maddox said the City of Tuscaloosa is considering increasing their PARA funding by $476,415 in 2022, and asked Northport to raise its funding by $548,855. In turn, Tuscaloosa County decrease cut its contributions by $383,360, netting PARA $641,000 more than they received this year.

Under that model, Northport's contribution would increase to roughly $20 per resident in 2022, compared to $27 per person in the city of Tuscaloosa. Maddox suggested Northport leaders commit to increasing their contributions to PARA by $1 per resident reach year until they matched Tuscaloosa city and county.

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Maddox did note that each government agency has increased its contributions to PARA significantly since 2005. Northport's funding increased by 17%, while Tuscaloosa's increased by 49%. The County's total funding increased rose 227% in that same time, and PARA's overall funding saw a 99% increase in that period.

Even so, Maddox said, PARA's needs have grown since its creation in the 1960's, at which time the majority of the county's population resided within 15 minutes of Downtown Tuscaloosa.

"[PARA] is being asked to try to fulfill three separate missions over a geographical span of Rhode Island," Maddox said. "What people may want in Samantha, Alabama, may be diametrically opposite from what they want in Duncanville, Alabama, that they may want in the city of Northport vs the city of Tuscaloosa."

Maddox also proposed the establishment of a Metro Executive Committee inside PARA, made up of elected officials and people in the community. Its mission would be to determine PARA's vision, recommend its annual budget to PARA, and recommend new facilities to the board.

The Tuscaloosa mayor also proposed creating a Parks and Recreation subcommittee on the Tuscaloosa City Council.

Maddox said the eventual goal of his proposed funding changes is to see an improved level of accountability for both cities, improve quality of life for citizens and bolster economic development.

"I believe that the governing structure of PARA is broken," Maddox said. "Parks and Recreation today plays such a higher role in the future of our respective communities."

Northport City Council President Jeff Hogg raised some concerns about his city's contributions. He noted the disparities in PARA-funded facilities between the two cities. He said that Northport's general budget of $35 million is only 23% of Tuscaloosa's same general fund of $154 million.

Northport is home to only two PARA facilities within its city limits: the Kentuck Art Center and Museum and the Northport Community Center. Hogg said that equates to 12.5% of PARA facilities and argued that if Northport adopts Maddox's funding plan, the city would essentially be overpaying by over 133%.

Maddox humored the idea of annexing certain facilities like Sokol Park into Northport city limits to account for this difference, but did not elaborate any further.

"How many of us want PARA to take over the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, or the River Market?" Maddox asked. "We have a high standard of excellence because we put the resources in here to maintain that... If we don't properly fund PARA and then hold them accountable, none of us will ever get that standard of excellence."

After the meeting, Maddox was asked about what's next regarding the negotiations.

"I can't really tell you, but I was very appreciative," he said. "They gave me a chance to talk to them and I think that speaks a lot of our long-term partnership."

Maddox said that if an agreement is struck, he hopes to implement these decisions by FY 2023.

"We're always talking about survivability. Wouldn't it be great if we were talking about... How we are going to have the best parks and recreation system?" Maddox said. "There's no way we can have the best parks, arts and entertainment recreation system under that model, so I look forward to discussions when we don't have to talk about that.

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