We've noticed early signs of a disturbing trend that may be on the rise in various Ohio park districts. Rather than putting a label on this practice, we'll describe how it works.
It starts when a parks levy fails to pass voter approval. These are usually operating levies that provide the budget that maintains parks and their facilities. When this happens, naturally there are consequences. Facilities and parks can close.
Bike Trails = Easy Targets
The disturbing trend we see is that bike trails are among the first facilities mentioned that will be shut down. Bike trails are very popular and therefore easy targets for closure. Affected park districts know this is a hot button they can push to attempt to leverage local residents. Obviously, we have a problem with that.
So let's clarify a few things for the record: Yes, bikeways are linear parks. Yes, they are often managed by park districts. Yes, we are trail users and advocates, so naturally we aren't happy about closing trails. All true and very black and white on the surface. But there's more to this scenario.
There are many factors that come into play here that are worth examination. Let's take a closer look at a few of them and then look at solutions.
Average citizens are forced to live within their budgets. Many are struggling to do so, while others are failing. Many are disgusted with what they see happening in Washington. They are tired of being taxed at every turn. They ran out of "extra" spending money long ago. They are now demonstrating their disgust across Ohio and across the country via their votes.
We pity the poor park district that is well-run on little money and suffers during these times. For districts that don't make best use of their budgets (however large or small) or don't reflect their residents wishes in their spending, we have none.
Trails Not Just For Fun
Many Ohio bike trails differentiate themselves from park trails by also being transportation and commuting corridors. In fact, many were built with grants that attest to their intermodal or alternative transportation aspect.
The Clark County Park District is reportedly closing some parks and placing 'No Trespassing' signs on sections of the Little Miami and Prairie Grass Trails since voters turned down their levy. These trails are part of the cross-state Ohio-to-Erie Trail, a major alternative transportation route. We'd like to pose the question, "Can you simply close a transportation corridor?"
Let's try some comparisons here. Do they close roadways when street maintenance budgets are cut? Do they rope off sidewalks? No.
Even when traditional roads and sidewalks fall into woeful disrepair, do they close them? Generally, no -- bridge disrepair being an obvious exception. They let the potholes and broken pavement take their toll on locals' cars and nerves. You can still get where you're going, but you might not enjoy the ride.
But to close a transportation corridor when it's still in good condition, well, that can easily be interpreted as a park district power play that's not likely to win many Facebook fans.
The Licking County Park District also had its levy rejected. The park director has reportedly said that if unmaintained bike trails and parks start to cause liability issues, they will have to be closed to the public.
Our visits to the Newark area trails in Licking County over the years revealed a lack of adequate maintenance to some portions of the trail surface. This has been documented on the TJ Evans Trail review page and comments page by trail users.
Dangerous conditions have existed there for extended periods of time. If the parks' director was not concerned enough to do anything about these conditions with a maintenance budget, why is he concerned now?
Reports in the news regarding trail closures in Clark County are more troubling. Park commissioners have decided to shut down trails within two weeks of the levy vote suggesting they had warned the public that this could happen. It appears clear that they are ensuring that it does, which is highly inappropriate.
“We’re not shutting down the park district. We’re shutting down the parks,” said parks commissioner Tim DeVore. If that's true, district residents hardly have any need for park staff, directors or park commissioners.
In principle, park district employees -- regardless of title -- are caretakers of the public (people's) parks. As such they are public servants, not park czars or dictators.
The "Almighty" Grant
Ohioans love grants. They do. Many will go after that money with unparalleled zeal as if it were some sort of free prize for the taking. Some get as much as they can, regardless of their need. Case in point, the many bloated Ohio schools built with federal taxpayer money. You don't have to drive far to find an expansive multi-million dollar campus that replaced a basic high school building. Make no mistake, many of these large complexes are not the result of careful studies of student population growth.
And what of the additional maintenance work and operating costs for these monsterous campuses? While the district's grant (prize) money was likely well-publicized, we'll bet the additional operating costs albatross won't be paraded around anytime soon.
But the point is not entirely about schools, but rather the attitude and use of grant money. The process is likely abused in many projects, trails and parks included.
For example, how many trails built with federal funds have factored in projected annual maintenance costs for the future? Any guesses? We'd wager few, if any. Why? We know that it's not a required part of the grant process for trails, so unless local residents insist on knowing the full scope of these costs before they approve a trail or park district expansion, it's not typically disclosed. You can blame grant fever or fervor, if you like. It can easily trump common sense and fiscal responsibility.
So, what are your options if you live in a district that has closed, or is threatening to close your local trail? Well, you can donate to those that maintain the bikeway, if you are satisfied with how it's managed. Or, you can take action by looking into organizing a volunteer group to assist or takeover maintenance of your favorite trail(s).
Many trails have adopted a volunteer component for maintenance or safety patrol. Two shining examples are the volunteer-run Kokosing Gap Trail and the recent work done by the Friends of The Little Miami State Park Trail. The latter group formed when the 50-mile trail section developed serious maintenance issues due to park budget cuts.
There are many volunteer trail groups often providing hands-on support to help build and/or keep their trails in good shape. Consider donating your time in support of your local trail. It takes users to make a trail come to life. And it takes those users who appreciate it to give back to ensure it will continue to live on and serve the community.