John O'Connor, left, and Howard Barnett from Tulsa Leadership Vision, Inc., brief city councilors Dec. 14 regarding the nonprofit's study of ways to ensure the long-term viability of local parks systems. KEVIN CANFIELD/The Frontier

John O’Connor, left, and Howard Barnett from Tulsa Leadership Vision, Inc., brief city councilors Dec. 14 regarding the nonprofit’s study of ways to ensure the long-term viability of local parks systems. KEVIN CANFIELD/The Frontier

The Tulsa City Council earlier this month tapped the brakes on an effort by a group of private sector business leaders to devise a plan to ensure the long-term viability of the city’s multiple park systems.

Councilors aren’t necessarily opposed to exploring the idea, but they’re not thrilled with the process thus far.

“I think we’re maybe getting the cart ahead of the horse here a little bit,” said Councilor Anna America.

The nonprofit group Tulsa Leadership Vision, Inc., began its work in 2014 with the support of Mayor Dewey Bartlett and the Tulsa County commissioners. The initiative was undertaken, in part, to look at how the park systems might eliminate duplicated services and reduce costs, since park funding — especially at the city — has been a problem for years.

Complicating the issue is the fact that the two park systems are funded differently. City parks rely primarily on sales taxes and county parks rely primarily on property taxes.

Two years into the group’s work, Phase 1 and Phase 2 studies — all privately funded — are complete.

Phase 1 provides an assessment of the of the assets, history, challenges facing the city and county park systems as well as the willingness to consider park consolidation. Phase 2, which looked at the feasibility of running the parks systems under an alternate model, includes a recommendation that the park systems be consolidated.

Tulsa Leadership Vision members Howard Barnett and John O’Connor told councilors on Dec. 14 that the group was hoping to get $40,000 from the city to help fund Phase 3 — the development of a strategic master plan to implement the park consolidation. Tulsa County has already committed $18,000 to the project, and the private sector putting in $58,000.

“Cost savings would be nice, but the real goal needs to be a better park system for the citizens of Tulsa,” Barnett told councilors.

But city councilors weren’t ready to commit any funding. They noted that the full council had yet to receive a briefing on Phase 2, which was completed in early 2016, and made clear that no request for funding would be considered until such time as the briefing occurs and city officials are brought into the conversation.

“I do feel a little like mom and dad, in that you guys only ask for us when you need money from us,” America quipped.

Barnett and O’Connor welcomed the engagement and insisted their intent was not to bypass city leaders. They also noted that several councilors have attended updates on the group’s work and that both the city and county parks directors have been included in the discussions.

America said last week that she expects the full council to meet again with Tulsa Leadership Vision representatives in January.

What was broached but never addressed in the Dec. 14 meeting was this: What do the people running the city and county park systems think of the idea of consolidating the park systems?

So, we asked, and here are their answers.

  • Lucy Dolman, Tulsa Parks and Recreation Department director

For Dolman, two things jump to mind immediately when the prospect of consolidating park systems comes up.

“First of all, if you are going to do it, all city/county facilities need to be part of it, or it’s still going to be controversial and it’s going to be fractured,” she said. “And you need to be able to show why you are doing it. It needs to show some efficiencies or cost savings in order to make it feasible, because every dollar now is precious.”

Phase 2 of the study found that, in the short term, consolidating the park systems would not save money and could in fact increase costs initially. But Barnett told councilors that over the long run, the new model might save money, though he could make no promises.

Meanwhile, not every local park system wants to be part of the consolidation process. Matt Meyer, executive director of River Parks Authority, has said the organization in not interested in participating in the consolidation discussion.

Dolman said neither Tulsa Leadership Vision, Inc., nor its consultant, Green Play, asked her what she thought of consolidating the park systems. Instead, her involvement in the process has been to provide information and answer other questions.

“There is duplication of services — they’re probably are efficiencies to be found, but we operate differently,” Dolman said. “We have outsourced — we have partners for the zoo, Gilcrease Museum and the golf courses. The county still runs theirs.

“There are big differences, so you’re not comparing apples to apples.”

Could consolidation work? Dolman says “yes,” but her response is void of conviction and full of buts.

“But I think it would take a lot of money to work,” she said. “I think it would take a lot of communication with staff, and right now we get our communication (about possible consolidation) through the media, and it kills our morale.”

Combining park systems, she added, doesn’t guarantee a better park service.

“Do I think it’s going to improve it? No,” Dolman said. “Because the county has funding problems, we have funding problems. Until we get a dedicated sales tax, we’re going to have issues funding parks, it’s as simple as that.”

The city of Tulsa’s park system comprises 142 parks. For years, it has struggled to maintain its facilities and staffing under ever-tightening budgets. So it was with great pride that the park system earlier this year received its national accreditation from the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies. Tulsa was the first city in the state to receive the accreditation.

That designation, Dolman noted, would go away if the city and county parks system merged.

“We’ve worked so hard to get that,” she said.

Dolman, who became parks director in 2009, said she is open to discussing the issue further and will work with Mayor G.T. Bynum to implement whatever park strategy he and the park board see fit moving forward.

Bynum, who took office Dec. 5, told councilors he has yet to examine the issue in detail but sees park consolidation as part of a broader discussion he plans to have with the county regarding how the parties can work together to provide government services more efficiently and effectively.

  • Richard Bales, Tulsa County parks director

When asked whether Tulsa Leadership Vision, Inc., had ever asked him what he thinks about consolidating the city and county park systems, Bales, like Dolman, said no.

But if it had, Bales would have said the idea has potential.

“If it is put together correctly and they can put together a funding mechanism that takes away the ups and downs,” Bales said.

He added: “From my perspective, funding is the biggest obstacle. How does that happen?”

The Tulsa County parks system has four major parks: LaFortune, Chandler, Haikey Creek and O’Brien. It also includes several smaller parks, golf courses and community centers — one as as far away as Glenpool.

  • Matt Meyer, executive director of River Parks Authority

Meyer said he let Tulsa Leadership Vision, Inc., know early on that River Parks was not interested in being part of any consolidation talks.

“Our focus is on the river, and we think we would lose our focus from the river if we got absorbed by a much bigger group,” Meyer said.

River Parks Authority comprises 26 miles of paved trails and more than 300 acres of Turkey Mountain. In addition, the $400 million A Gathering Place for Tulsa park along Riverside Drive has been gifted to the authority.