A play structure at Wallace House Park was blocked off after vandals struck. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

A play structure at Wallace House Park was blocked off after vandals struck. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

A $3,500 expense in a city’s operating budget of more than $24 million might seem like a drop in the bucket. But you’re not Robert Johnson.

Johnson is Keizer’s parks and facilities department manager, and a recent act of vandalism has him pondering ramifications that go far beyond fixing a broken slide and bridge on the west Keizer play structure.

“It looks piddly on paper, $3,500 shouldn’t keep the problem from being fixed, but it is a huge hit to us. We have to ask ourselves if we can afford it,” Johnson said.

Johnson and the city’s only other full-time park employee, Don Shelton, had to block off portions of a play structure in Wallace House Park last week after a slat on a bridge broke and a slide was damaged.

It’s a temporary fix while Johnson figures out where to pull the money from to pay for repair, but it’s also a portent of what might be in the future of Keizer parks unless a stable funding source is secured.

Johnson originally estimated the cost to repair the structure at $2,000, but the number climbed up after getting exact prices on replacements and labor.

The damage to the slide is believed to have been an act of vandalism, but it’s harder to determine what happened to the bridge. The manufacturer agreed to cover the replacement slat under warranty, but not the slide. The total for part alone amounted to $1,574. Johnson also doesn’t want to void the remaining warranty on the play structure, which means a licensed installer has to perform the repair. Labor will cost another $1,900.

There is no excess within the parks budget. The general fund, which the city uses to pay for police and parks among other expenses, does have a contingency component but fixing a play structure using those reserves falls far down on the list of priorities.

Johnson could use money from a match grant fund for parks improvements, but that would pull money away from other potential projects that serve to engage residents in park ownership. A $5,000 match grant was awarded last year to rehabilitate Carlson Skate Park, but the project fell through. The money was rolled over into the matching grant fund this year and Johnson is loathe to use it for another purpose. City officials are hoping someone with a plan to fix the issues at the skate park comes forward.

“What it comes down to is operating funds and seasonal temporary hires. I watch my spending already, and I would have to go without something. It doesn’t hit me this second, but I have to prepare for what’s down the line,” Johnson said.

If he cuts back on hours for seasonal hires, it will mean he and Shelton have to scramble to make up the difference when park usage kicks into full gear next spring.

Another option is holding off on equipment purchases. He was hoping to get a new mower, blower and trimmer in June 2017 with any funds he managed to save during the rest of the year. Repairing the Wallace House Play structure would make that more unlikely.

“If one of our current machines blows up or goes out of service, we won’t have the tools to do the job,” Johnson said.

A wind storm that took down several trees in Keizer parks requiring a tree service to step in also took a chunk out of what he hoped to be saving toward the purchases.

As of Nov. 14, Johnson was still weighing his options and the play structure was still blocked off.