Finance Advisory Board chairman's comments on Bonner Park stun Largo officials

The head of the city's Finance Advisory Board routinely sums up board recommendations for city leaders as budget hearings approach each year.

But the format changed for board chairman Satendra Singh after he attended a City Commission meeting and watched resident after resident plead with commissioners not to close John R. Bonner Nature Park.

He felt bad for the people. He thought the proposal didn't make sense. He had to speak his mind.

In a passionate speech Tuesday at a city budget work session, he labeled the staff's proposal to close the park a "distraction." And he said that some in the city were using the subject to avoid dealing with real budget issues.

Making a reference to Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu's Art of War, he said the proposal was meant to upset people and get them "all tangled up in these small battles while the battle for bigger purpose was being executed."

Singh said he had to speak out.

"I live here. I care about this place. I'm a constructive player," said Singh, 61.

At a second budget work session on Thursday, Recreation Parks director Joan Byrne defended her decision to propose park closures.

"It was never ever our intention to stir the pot, to make a statement, to do anything other than to try to address how we were going to come up with a different way of doing business and look to the future to sustain the core things that we do," Byrne said.

The city staff proposed cutting the general fund budget in 2009-10 by about $3.5 million. Part of the cut, about $1 million, would come from freezing wages for all city workers. On top of that, Byrne said she cut about $713,600 from her budget.

She chose to close Bonner and the Largo Central Park Nature Preserve because they had fences around them and could easily be gated, she said. The nature preserve has other issues. The city has fenced off part of the preserve while conducting tests for arsenic contamination.

Joe Falanga, another member of the volunteer board, said he was shocked by Singh's comments.

"I was very disappointed because he said some things that were not a true representation of the board," Falanga said. "I felt bad that he didn't come prepared to really truly express our recommendations."

Board member Clyde Schreiner said he agreed with a "fair amount" of the things that Singh said, but he wished Singh used his time in front of commissioners to detail what the board discussed, rather than his own opinions.

"It would have been better if he would have waited until the September (budget) meetings for public input to get his personal feelings across," Schreiner said.

A couple other Finance Advisory Board members also wrote the city, saying that Singh's comments did not represent the board.

In Singh's work session statement and in comments the day after, he said the city didn't need to cut services. It just needed to do things more efficiently, he said.

Plus, he said, there were more logical targets for trimming, such as the pool at Southwest Recreation Center.

Falanga said the board discussed charging people who use the pool for events, not shutting it down.

The city has enough money to keep the nature parks open, Singh said, and he was frustrated that the staff proposed closing them but couldn't tell the board what the parks cost.

"How could you decide to close something when you don't even know what the numbers are?" he asked.

Byrne had said that calculating exact costs is extremely difficult because, in most cases, park personnel work at multiple sites and perform multiple tasks.

At the Thursday work session, she said keeping Bonner open would add about $36,000 to next year's proposed budget.

Mayor Pat Gerard said Singh's statements represent a certain segment of Largo's population.

"We certainly need to listen to him," Gerard said.

Singh's statement was worded a "bit strongly." But she empathized with his frustration, Gerard said.

"I can see why he felt he needed to say those things," Gerard said. "It's not particularly helpful when they agree with everything the staff does."

At a meeting last month, Gerard hit her boiling point after hearing numerous residents complain about Bonner Park's closure. Then, she said she agreed with a statement by activist and commission candidate Curtis Holmes. He called the proposal a "red herring."

She told residents the park wouldn't close. And she demanded to know who put up signs on city letterhead saying the park was considered for closure.

That still remains a mystery. But Gerard says she's cooled down.

"I think the staff's done a great job in trying to pare (the budget) down without taking big gouges of what we're trying to do," she said.

Finance Advisory Board chairman's comments on Bonner Park stun Largo officials 08/15/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 5:30am]

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