Meadville City Council on Wednesday considered and ultimately rejected the idea of organizing a summer parks program for 2021.

Funding such a program would likely cost about $16,000, interim City Manager Gary Johnson told council, and making it a reality would require swift action on the part of council, city staff and the Meadville Area Recreation Complex, which would have been charged with hiring park attendants and organizing the program.

No funds had been budgeted for such a purpose, Johnson said. In the end, however, it was the timing that proved to be the roadblock for council.

“I’m concerned about the city financially sponsoring a project that’s put together in two weeks' time,” attorney Elizabeth Spadafore told council. “I have some pretty big concerns, particularly where unsupervised children are the subjects of the project.”

It doesn’t make sense to start a summer parks program in July when “the summer’s half over,” according to Mayor LeRoy Stearns.

“Staff pretty much told us it would take quite some time to get everything in order for this to happen,” he said, “so instead of doing it halfway, it’s maybe just don’t do it.”

Johnson raised the possibility of using money from the city’s general fund budget in anticipation of reimbursement from federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funds. The city expects to receive $1.25 million through the American Rescue Plan Act.

But the prospect of reimbursement proved unpersuasive.

Councilwoman Autumn Vogel proposed that the $16,000 it would cost to hire park attendants might be better spent on park infrastructure that would be available in future years. Then, program planning would not be affected by the pandemic and staffing would likely be available through the Allegheny College Bonner Program, which provided park attendants for such a program in 2019.

“If we invest in our parks,” she said, “then they’re ready to go and to be used for that purpose next summer.”

Vogel’s reference to permanent bathroom facilities as one target of such infrastructure spending drew skepticism from council members Jim Roha and Sean Donahue.

Roha suggested the cost of such facilities would far outpace the $16,000 that had been considered for staffing the parks this year.

Donahue, whose tool and die shop is adjacent to the Fifth Ward playground, said he wouldn’t want to see permanent facilities installed at the park. Permanent restrooms bring increased maintenance costs and additional traffic and might be unwelcome to other park neighbors.

“It’s opening up a whole new can of worms,” Donahue said while noting he had supported installing both a restroom and a water fountain at the reconstructed H.P. Way Park on Highland Avenue several years ago.

In the end, neither a bathroom nor a fountain was installed at H.P. Way, but more recently portable toilet and hand-washing facilities have been deployed at the city parks that lack permanent facilities.

Having heard skepticism from Roha and Donahue and concern from Spadafore, Stearns brought an end to the parks program discussion.

“I think on the recommendation of our solicitor and staff — and the timing — it’s just best we don’t do it,” he said. “It just might be safer to do it later.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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