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Votes

Nature Center Funds May Be Cut

Town Council eyes budget amendments that would reduce Runnymede Park improvements.

Herndon’s Town Council will review possible amendments to the town’s Capital Improvement Program budget on Nov. 28 that may eliminate nearly all of the funds allotted for construction of a Nature Center at Runnymede Park.

Citing a need to contend with rising costs of town staff salaries and benefits in the shadow of a rapidly-cooling real estate market, several council members have expressed an interest in making the amendments to redraw the budget, which had been approved originally by the former Town Council.

“To get a nature center, to get a cultural arts center, to get a downtown parking garage, the bottom line is that we’ll have to go into debt,” said council member Dave Kirby. “I don’t want us to get into something that we can’t handle ... and have our hands tied when it comes to money available to the town.”

The proposed amendments, which had originally been discussed in September, would reduce available funding for the project from approximately $2.25 million to $100,000, an alteration that would remove the potential for the construction of a Nature Center and several of the improvement projects at Runnymede Park. Included with the Runnymede Park funding eliminations, sports fields and park improvements would be cut to approximately one-third its original budget, improvements to downtown streets funding will be reduced by $110,000 and improvements to Elden and Center streets would be sliced in half.

While the bond to be issued for the project would equal $2.5 million, the construction of the Nature Center itself would be a little less than $1 million, a result of the work from town officials and community leaders to lower the price tag for construction.

THE PROPOSED BUDGET cuts are a shame to Dave Swan, president of Friends of Runnymede Park and leader of a push by several dozen town residents to address the council on the benefits of the Nature Center at public meetings last September.

“If these changes are enacted, essentially all we would get new in the town would be a road to nowhere and a parking lot,” Swan said, referring to street improvement projects and a downtown parking proposal. “I don’t even think Alaska’s bridge to nowhere is as bad as that.”

On Nov. 14, Swan presented the Town Council with a letter from the Friends of Runnymede Park advocating in favor of the Nature Center’s construction and outlining the fact that the Town of Herndon has already spend more than $200,000 “preparing for and designing this facility.”

The cuts, according to Vice Mayor Dennis Husch, are necessary to maintain competitive wages for a quality town staff, whose salary structures and payment of benefits are projected to grow by nearly $1 million in the next two years. Paired with a flattening revenue due to stagnant house market and assessment values, the need for the town to save money is even more important, he added.

“What you’re seeing, I think, by the mayor and Town Council is a very business-like approach towards operating the town,” Husch said. “Given that we’re going to have flat revenues for the next couple years and increases in both salaries and benefits of our staff, we need to understand just what impact every spending decision we make is going to have.”

PAYMENTS MADE to service the debt from any bond issued by the town to finance the Nature Center, as well as basic operating and maintenance costs of the building more than likely make the project a bad idea while trying to maintain a conservative budget, Husch said, noting that most of the members of the Town Council who swept to victory in elections last spring were elected while running on platforms of fiscal responsibility.

On the other hand, due to the small size of the interest rate on a bond issued for this project, any changes made to the budget to eliminate its issuance would have little or no effect on how the town will be able to operate on a yearly basis, said council member Harlon Reece.

“We’re talking about something … that will be spread out over the course of 30 years, so payments will be relatively small for the town to make,” Reece said. “I don’t buy that argument” that the town officials would have their hands tied financially if the bond were issued.

Nor does Swan.

“If you consider the town’s budget as a citizen might have his or her budget, you’re looking at the concern of having a Nature Center being about the cost of having a second phone line in the house,” Swan said. “The budget would be affected to the tune of less than one half of one percent on a yearly basis.”

WITH A TOWN COUNCIL that states on a consistent basis that all residents concerns and opinions will be considered heavily in policy decisions, Swan said that he felt short-changed by the way they have addressed the issue of the Runnymede Park Nature Center.

Swan pointed out to the Town Council during a public forum earlier this month that, according to his numbers, 70 percent of speakers who addressed the council on the issue of a nature center during the advocacy push were in support of its construction.

The numbers are actually misleading, said Kirby, who added that he has heard from more town residents who did not speak at the meeting who do not support the creation of a Nature Center.

“We’ve received e-mails and I remember from being out going door to door [campaigning] that there are a large number of residents who do not want the town spending money on these projects,” he said.

Husch, when asked if he would support a town-wide referendum on issuing the bond for the project, said that he would welcome the idea.

“If the people of Herndon want to tax themselves for the funding of a Nature Center, then the Town Council would respect that and go about finding the money to do that,” Husch said. “I don’t think that you’d find a whole lot of people coming out there to support spending this money.”

THE BENEFITS of having a Nature Center in Runnymede Park far outweigh the cost that would be associated with it, said Swan who added that he is not the only one to express this desire to the mayor and council members.

“The benefits of a Nature Center are broad … and they affect a wide range of people,” Swan said. “That’s why you get so much support for it across different groups of people.”

While raising the money for the center’s construction privately, a suggestion brought up by several residents opposed to its creation, remains a possibility, it is not very likely any time soon, Swan said. Reston residents have been raising money privately for a Nature Center for nearly a decade and have only seen their costs of construction soar.

It is for that reason that the best time to build the center would be now, Reece said.

“I feel that if he weren’t to build the site now, we would be going back on a promise that we have made to residents for several years,” he said. “I have no idea what the entire town thinks when it comes to this project, nor do I think any council members do.”

“I believe that each of the Town Council members will have to vote with his or her conscience on this one.”