Changes in the organizational structure of the Chester County Parks Department and a proposed new source of revenue are being touted as a way to improve services to the public at the same time costs are lowered.
The reorganization plan implemented since a series of layoffs in the department took place in the summer is intended to decentralize the bureaucratic makeup of the department, giving regional park superintendents more autonomy over management, programs, and recreational events at the county’s five parks and three hiking and biking trails, officials say.
The idea is to make the park superintendents responsible for programs so that “they pretty much do it on their own, with support from West Chester,” rather than have those duties rest in the hands of department directors at the top of the organization, said Don Thompson, a county consultant who was asked to examine the department.
“These guys are in charge now,” said Thompson, of the superintendents during an interview last week about the changes.
His comments were echoed by county Commissioner Ryan Costello, who said the streamlined department would continue to bring quality services at reduced costs to the county taxpayer. “The superintendents and rangers are empowered now and they feel better about it,” he said.
At the same time, the commissioners are set to approve a plan to increase the tax now levied on guests at county hotels and motels and to use the extra revenue to fund increased employment of rangers in the 5,000 acres of county parks and on the 16 miles of trails the department oversees.
Finally, the commissioners also hope to tap a capital fund run by the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau for grants that would be used to fund park and trail improvements.
The staff reorganization has already been put in place; Thompson and Costello said the revenue changes are expected to be approved later this month during the county’s budget deliberations.
The moves drew rave reviews from a member of the county Parks Advisory Board, a volunteer board that oversees projects, policies, and procedures in the parks.
“There was some initial surprise as to the extent of the reorganization, but now that the dust has settled it appears the new organization and new leadership has made some very positive improvements,” board member Bob O’Leary said in an interview Monday. “It is moving the department forward.
“What has been done is in the best interests of the county,” said O’Leary, who came to the board after serving as a leader of the Friends of the Chester Valley Trail. “It runs smoother and smaller. I think it really is going to work well. I am very impressed with how things are going. I think it is very positive.”
“I am very excited about the direction they are headed in,” said board Chairman Robert Morrison of Westtown. “I think the parks will be run as well, if not better, than they have been in the past, and at the same time saving taxpayer dollars.”
Giving individual park rangers more autonomy and using their expertise makes sense, he said. “This will allow them to use their talents the best they can, instead of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.”
Morrison also paid tribute to the administration of the county facilities department who implemented Thompson’s plan. “Steve Fromnick and Chris Guenther have done an excellent job,” he said. “It’s been a very positive thing.”
In an interview last week, Thompson said that he had been asked six months ago to begin top to bottom review of the parks department. In 2010, the department was merged with the county’s Facilities Department, and then this year during a round of layoffs, the county released former director John Mikowychok and some of his staff assistants, saving about $400,000 in the department’s budget.
Costello acknowledged there was concern in the parks community that the dismissal of Mikowychok and his assistants would put management of the county parks in the hands of administrators more experienced in dealing with facilities and maintenance than with outdoor and environmental programs.
“When you have cuts, there will always be criticism,” he said. “But this is a better recreation system for a lower cost.”
Thompson said he proposed to trim the county’s four park regions to three and to appoint a regional director in charge of each. In turn, they would be responsible for making individual management and program decisions in the parks themselves.
The county would be divided into south, central and north regions, with Nottingham and Wolf’s Hollow parks in the south; Hibernia and Springton Manor parks in the central regional; and Warwick Park and the county’s three trails – Struble, Chester Valley, and Schuylkill – in the north.
They hired or promoted three superintendents who would oversee the individual parks and rangers attached to them. They are:
Robert Lewis at Hibernia and Springton Manor, who started with the county in 2003 as a park ranger and became a superintendent in 2007, and whose previous work was with Turkey Swamp Park in New Jersey as a county park ranger.
Jay Gregg at Nottingham and Wolf’s Hollow, who started with the county in 2007 as the facilities manager at Springton Manor Farm and became a superintendent in 2010. His previous work was as a horticulturist with Sir John Thouron, the famed West Marlborough horticulturalist.
Owen Prusack at Warwick Park and the trails. Prusack has been with the county since 1982, and served as regional superintendent for many of those years.
Thompson also gave the go-ahead to take two full-time ranger positions that were vacant and split them between eight part time positions to spread ranger duties across the county. He said that some areas, such as the trails, had no regular patrols by rangers, and that the new hires would fulfill dual roles as enforcement and educational officers.
“These guys are educators,” Thompson said of the new hires. “They are able to put on programs in education and they have experience in environmental sciences. The quality of the applicants was unbelievable. I was blown away.”
The new positions will be funded, the plan goes, by the additional 1 percent tax levied on hotel guests suggested by the conference and visitors bureau. The increase is expected to generate $750,000.
Also, the county was encouraged by the visitors bureau to apply for funding for capital projects in the county parks from the bureau’s foundation, which has about $2.1 million available for capital improvements to promote tourism.
Thompson said such funding could be used to complete the unfinished Schuylkill Valley Trail sections in East Coventry and Phoenixville, using the money for site design and right of way acquisition, as well as construction of restroom facilities at Warwick and Nottingham parks and improvements to park offices.
“The point is the parks are one of our flagship draws for visitors,” Thompson said.
“It fits with the concept that the dollars are designed to bring people into Chester County,” Costello added. “The underlying idea is to attract more visitors to the county.”