Our View: Park improvement fund is innovative — and hip

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Our View: Park improvement fund is innovative — and hip
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In recent years, several local groups intent on improving Alexandria parks have approached the city seeking funding to complement money they raised privately for projects. Funding for parks projects such as Hume Springs Community Park and the Miracle Field was sought from the city on an ad hoc basis.

City council in its fiscal 2017 budget decided to reduce the randomness and subjectivity of these types of requests by setting aside a pot of public money that resident groups can apply to have match privately raised funds. On balance, we think this is a good idea.

The pot of money — $50,000 this year and rising to $100,000 in fiscal 2018 — will be distributed much like foundation grants are awarded. There is a set application process with predetermined parameters regarding the scope of projects and amount of matching funds available, and applications are due by September 1.

The parks and recreation commission will consider all applications at once during its September meeting and will announce recipients the following month. Selected applicants will then have until June 2017 to raise the private portion of the partnership.

We think this process will lead to good decisions. Applications will come from the very people most qualified to recommend improvements — frequent users of the parks. Approvals will come from the commission, supported by city staff, that is most immersed in the details of particular parks projects. And the public-private aspect of the endeavor literally requires applicants to put their money where their mouths are.

We see two reasonable objections to this new process, and both are criticisms that also have been leveled against busi- ness improvement districts:

The first is that improvements — in this case for parks and with BIDs for things like better lighting and signage — are supposed to be paid for out of tax revenues. Given that our local tax burden is already high, some may wonder, “Why aren’t these things already being done?”

The second potential objection is that an unelected and thus unaccountable body, in this case the parks and recreation commission, will be the entity allocating city money rather than city councilors who face voters every three years through elections.

While these concerns are valid, we think they are outweighed by the clear benefits of this initiative. The reality is things like public safety and schools rightly take budgetary precedence over water bottle stations in parks. And yet, if park users want water bottle stations, this enables them to potentially fill that need.

And while it’s true that city council will now not be directly approving or denying each individual application, it did set aside funding for the initiative — and can reauthorize or eliminate it in any future budget. This might also have the unintended but happy consequence of shortening council meetings if some items are eliminated from the docket.

We applaud this effort to formalize and streamline the process of applying for matching city money. In fact, the initiative is not only good, but also somewhat hip, as it nudges city fundraising in the direction of online fundraisers like GoFundMe. It will be fun to monitor the emerging projects.

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