Council voices support for parks

Excess reserve funds would be used to restore playground equipment

At a discussion Wednesday on how best to spend excess reserve funds, City Council didn’t monkey around when it came to a proposal to restore playground equipment that has been stripped from Altoona’s parks because of liability concerns.

Council members informally agreed to authorize the spending of about $260,000 for play units at the East Juniata Tot Lot, and Iuzzolino, Focus and Orchard parks along with play units and a swing set at Fairview Park and a swing set at Highland Park.

Equipment at those parks has been removed over the last couple of years — or will be removed soon at Fairview — due to noncompliance with modern safety standards and deterioration, as determined by Central Blair Park and Recreation Commission Executive Director Mike Hofer. Hofer became a certified playground inspector a couple of years ago in connection with a lawsuit over a fall at Highland Park, which was ultimately settled by the city.

“There’s no playground equipment in any of these parks, and that’s a shame,” City Manager Marla Marcinko said.

Marcinko shared a message from Hofer about the Fairview equipment, which he examined recently.

Hofer reported finding cracks in the plastic of the sliding board at “critical mounting locations, exposed steel that is rusting (and) which is already weakened due to the exposure, missing handrails at secondary level decks (and) cracks in coated chains,” which can lead to crush or shear injuries.

“I absolutely hate writing these emails, but I don’t want to see a kid get injured because we are trying to provide fun at the cost of a child’s health,” Hofer stated. “(But) there are just way too many possible liabilities and areas that are injuries waiting to happen.”

The city has a responsibility to maintain playgrounds to uphold the quality of life here for young families, Marcinko said.

Good playgrounds are important for neighborhood “cohesion,” Council­man Dave Butterbaugh said.

With the current situation in the city, parents are taking their children to Legion Park in Hollidays­burg, which has a large wooden playground set, Councilman Bruce Kelley said.

Someone suggested that playground equipment is inherently dangerous.

Maybe so, but lawsuits against municipalities generally depend on a charge of negligence, and if a municipality installs up-to-date equipment that meets national standards and it hasn’t deteriorated, that charge would have little traction in court, solicitor Larry Clapper said.

The parks are owned by the city and managed by the Central Blair Park and Recreation Commission.

The new equipment should last 10 to 12 years, Marcinko said.

The cost of replacing the playground equipment is only a small part of the approximately $5.4 million that Marcinko has proposed to spend to bring the city’s projected year-end reserve of $10.7 million down to a more reasonable amount.

The projected reserve is equivalent to 34 percent of the city’s annual expenses.

The Government Finance Officers Association recommends that municipalities maintain reserves of between 5 and 10 percent.

Even if the city spends all that Marcinko proposes, its remaining reserve of $5.3 million would still be 16 percent of annual costs.

Council on Wednesday also reiterated its support of another Marcinko proposal for spending down the reserve, demolishing a building near City Hall, expanding an employee parking lot into the vacated space and re-landscaping all around the area, at total cost of $190,000.

Council previously gave its blessing to the allocation of $2.2 million over the next five years for storm sewer work in connection with the city’s share of the cost of projects undertaken by the Intergovernmental Stormwater Committee, a council of governments.

At Marcinko’s suggestion, council postponed discussion of other proposed projects to spend down the excess reserve until budget time in late summer and fall.

Resident Joe Koehle made it clear to council at its regular meeting Wednesday the focus he’d prefer for the reserve spending — evidently in connection with a prior council debate on whether to spend the money on things that are nice to have or things that are more substantial.

Koehle raised a big family, and his priority was always what was needed, rather than what was simply wanted, he said.

Altoona needs to include streets and sidewalks, and the reserves should go toward those — even if those needs are overwhelming, and the reserve would only “make a dent,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.