By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Most management-level government employees probably feel some relief when the new fiscal year begins on July 1 and budgets gets refreshed. For Robert Johnson, Keizer parks supervisor, “relief” isn’t the word he would use.

“It feels good, but it doesn’t feel like it’s a license to do whatever I want. It has to last the entire year and something always comes up,” Johnson said.

Since the beginning of the year, two things have caused unexpected headaches: wind storms and vandalism.

Snow during the winter and wind storms throughout the spring caused tree damage that put the city over its tree services budget, and cut into purchases Johnson was hoping to make with surplus this past month.

“I had to keep it lean and I was doing that already,” Johnson said.

In the past several weeks, joyriders have extensively damaged a fence separating a Keizer Rapids Park from a quarry to the north, which falls on the parks staff and contractors to repair. Last week, someone else drove a car over a berm in front of The Big Toy and into a four-foot path between the fence around the toy and the parking lot.

The car bottomed out at least twice destroying a section of native plants and tearing up two sections of the landscaped berm.

“Two weeks ago, we had an Eagle Scout finish his service project there. He got plants donated, put in a picnic table slab and finished bark dusting,” Johnson said.

Depending on what gets vandalized, the city’s parks employees – 1.5 full time and a few seasonal employees – are sometimes racing the clock in addition to trying to fulfill other duties and needs. Damaged plants have a limited amount of time in which they can be rescued.

“When the car pulled out of the path, the driver knocked over a mountain hemlock, which is a nice landscaping tree. I won’t know for a while what damage was done to the root structure,” Johnson said.

Johnson did manage to sock away some funds for new equipment, which will appear in the form of  new picnic tables.

“We never have enough of them and the wooden ones are vandalism targets and need to be almost entirely rebuilt by the time we repair them,” he said.

The vast majority of the refreshed parks budget is already spoken for. The only major project Johnson is even planning right now is a repair effort at Carlson Skate Park behind the Keizer Civic Center.

The Keizer Parks and Recreation Advisory Board agreed to suspend a matching grant program to help free up $27,000 to repair large and growing cracks throughout the park’s surface.

“It isn’t a lot of money, but enough to keep it open and operating and safe. It’s not a remodel or taking care of design flaws,” Johnson said.

He hopes to start as soon as possible, but even finding someone willing to do just the specialized repair work is difficult.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people with different ideas and big costs, but my only focus is safety, safety, safety,” he said.

Even now, Johnson is waiting on next year’s funding to catch up on tree work that needs to get done. The immediate priority is Sunset Park along the Willamette River.

“We’ve got to do some pruning, brush removal and there is a cottonwood that is going to have to come down before it becomes a danger,” Johnson said.

Summer months are actually some of the most hazardous for trees that are on the bubble. After taking on additional water to feed branches and leaves, a summer wind storm can make them easier to topple. Johnson said the cottonwood in question is already beginning to drop branches, which is a bad sign.

Other major projects are going to have to wait yet again. After fixing Carlson, Johnson wants to replace the play structure and widen paths at Meadows Park. Once that is done, a sports court at Bob Newton Park needs resurfacing before it reaches the point of no return.

“All the resources are going into the skate park and everything else gets pushed out at least another year,” Johnson said.

The Keizer City Council is expected to host a public hearing on a potential fee to create a dedicated parks fund at its July 16 meeting.