Bill Mitchell has been an advocate for the city's senior citizens ever since the administration announced it was stopping transportation to two of the city's senior centers last year. The service was reinstated, but because of the city's budget constraints, it's been stop-and-go ever since.
Last year, van service to senior centers was suspended in March but reinstated after Mitchell told council members that many of the seniors could not afford to pay for transportation. After the service was discontinued in April for seniors living outside a five-mile radius of the centers, Mitchell was back before the council's parks committee earlier this month.
"Most of them have been coming there for 10 years. It's like a second home," Mitchell said. "Actually, to some, it's a first home. That other place is just where they live."
A few months ago, during an early budget discussion, Councilman Jack Sammons implied that the city needed to take a hard look at what services to provide its citizens.
"At some point," he said, "there are going to be some real difficult decisions. Our golf course situation is going to be one. Golf in the United States is down 30 to 35 percent in the last five years. People play poker now instead of golf."
Many of those hard decisions came to a head at the beginning of June when the City Council approved a budget of almost $506 million. The city administration was hoping to have a projected surplus of $12.5 million, but after City Council members added a golf course, several swimming pools, and more police officers onto the tab, the surplus dropped to $8.5 million.
Frayser's Davy Crockett golf course, scheduled to close at the end of this month, was granted a stay of execution by the council. Crockett will now remain open until October, at which time its fate will be revisited.
Parks director Bob Fouche told council members that Crockett had been on the chopping block for a while. "Because of minimal usage at Crockett, we said it would be the first to go," he said.
But obviously, not all council members agreed with administration decisions on budget cuts.
Edmund Ford said it looked like everything was being cut from his district, and Joe Brown and Barbara Swearengen Holt expressed similar sentiments.
"It seems like we pick a certain area to remove revenue from. It's beginning to look very suspicious," Brown said. "[This budget] seems to take away from communities that haven't had anything in years."
Brown argued that pool closings would provoke more turf wars at the pools that were still open. "When people pay taxes, they're entitled to the recreation the city can provide," he added.
I agree with council members on this, but not for all of the same reasons. I get the sense that they like recreational facilities because they are something tangible they can show their constituents. Luckily, there was a surplus to help fund the facilities.
I don't know about turf wars over one pool or another, but I do think these types of services keep kids off the streets. And that should mean less crime and, in the long run, lower rates of incarceration and the costs associated with both of those things.
In a way, public facilities are not just a service, but an investment. Pools, community centers, golf courses, and parks also give people places to run, to move, to swim. In a city that shows up on the "fattest cities" lists, recreational facilities can help both our bottoms and our bottom line.
But what about senior citizens? The issue was back before the parks committee this week to discuss a compromise Mitchell proposed last time: letting seniors already using the van service outside the five-mile radius keep it, but restricting it for new users.
"It would be like a grandfather clause, or more likely a grandmother [clause], because most of them are women," said Mitchell. "This problem will eventually take care of itself. They'll get older; they'll go to homes; they'll pass on and soon the five-mile radius will be the norm."
And if this was a hard decision -- given that the parks department says it needs a new $55,000 handicapped-accessible van -- it hasn't seemed that way to council members.
"If we can put revenue in a roundabout [on Mud Island]," said Brown, "surely we can invest in people."