‘Overrunning us’: Mayors unite to make pitch for more park funding from York County

York County mayors say more and more people are playing around, and someone ends up paying for it.

They’d like, at least a little more, for it to be York County.

Several mayors addressed York County Council on Monday night. Several more appeared with them. All making the case for more county money to pay for growing needs from sports leagues to parks and trails.

“All nine York County mayors realize that our county is growing rapidly,” said York Mayor Eddie Lee. “We know it and you know it. Our citizens who are also your constituents expect quality recreation programs.”

So many people flooding into the county makes providing those quality programs difficult, mayors say.

“We’re getting into a point where the quality versus quantity conversation starts, and that’s a losing conversation for the county,” said Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys. “That’s a losing conversation for every single municipality. The quantity is overrunning us all.”

As of mid-2017, York County had an estimated 266,439 residents. That number is up 18% from the most recent federal census in 2010. Fort Mill has a population 52% higher in that span. Tega Cay is up 33%, Clover 19%, Rock Hill almost 10% and York 5%.

“As the county, rightfully so, permits new construction throughout York County outside of the municipalities — whether it be residential, apartment, multi-use or condominiums — there’s a continuing number of people moving into the county,” Gettys said. “Those people that live in the county can go anywhere they want to, to any park they want to.”

Tega Cay knows it well. In the fall 2018 and spring 2019 seasons, the city had 4,678 paid participants in its recreation programs. Of them, 1,778 gave Tega Cay addresses.

“That represents, 38 percent come from Tega Cay (and) 62 percent come from somewhere else,” said Mayor David O’Neal.

The city budgeted $520,850 for its recreation program. The city received $142,000 from York County. Tega Cay and other municipalities get a share of what the county collects for recreation, more than $1.2 million in the current year budget.

“So our $520,000 pays for 38% of the participation,” O’Neal said. “And then we get $142,000 from the county for 62% of the participation.”

The issue, Gettys said, is recreation funding increases are coming at a cost of living or tax millage increase pace. New residents aren’t.

“It’s not keeping up,” he said. “It’s not tracking appropriately.”

Municipalities can choose to raise taxes within their borders, but can’t tax people who may come from other parts of the county or even North Carolina to use facilities or play in sports leagues. The county has that option for its residents, many living in unincorporated areas.

“My personal opinion is tripling the contribution it is now would be about right,” Gettys said.

Mayors say recreation needs are many, and they cost money. York isn’t the largest municipality in the county, and still they provide everything from aerobics, Zumba and yoga to football, baseball, picnic shelters and more.

“We hire and train the referees, we light the playing fields, we empty the garbage cans, we patrol the parking lots, we pay the staff,” Lee said. “We erect miles of fences to keep the deer in their lanes. And we maintain the facilities.”

York has nine parks, and two more planned.

“And anyone can use them, regardless of residency,” Lee said.

Tega Cay offers free tennis and pickleball. The city has beach parks and a boat launch, disc golf, trails. Plus scores of children and adults playing in sports leagues. For many county residents — Baxter, Brayden, Waterstone, Fieldstone, Knightsbridge — Tega Cay has the closest fields and leagues.

“We are only assuming that they are the ones coming to our parks to play,” O’Neal said.

Even with parks it has now and plans for the lakefront Catawba Park, Tega Cay needs to rent out 800 hours of field space from the Fort Mill school district to run its programs. That need comes with hiring staff and other costs.

Mayors came to the county two years ago concerned about needing more money for recreation. They were told, Gettys said, it was too late in the county budgeting process. They returned last year, earlier in that process. Initially, the mayors believed their municipalities might receive more money, but it didn’t happen.

Gettys said the common call from mayors on Monday is an effort to approach the policy-makers at the county level with their concerns, early enough in annual budgeting to make a difference. He didn’t ask council for a monetary commitment, but for them to authorize county staff to meet and work with municipalities toward a solution.

Despite repeated statements by York County Council members in recent years that the county doesn’t want to run its own parks and recreation department, the county has taken its own recreation steps. The county runs Ebenezer Park in Rock Hill. After Lake Wylie voters approved a special tax district to fund a park there, the county set up a community park along Crowders Creek. The county recently bought about 1,900 acres on the Rock Hill side of the Catawba River to create an Anne Springs Close Greenway-type amenity.

Municipalities have their own ways of generating recreation funding. Along with taxes, Fort Mill and Tega Cay have impact fees specific to recreation. User and sports registration fees bring in money, often at different price points for in-town and out-of-town participants.

For the mayors Monday night, the issue isn’t whether recreation programs will wither and go away. It’s about why type of programs residents will get as more arrive to use them.

“We’ve got a lot of great things coming to York County and we have a choice,” Gettys said. “We have a choice to just do what we’re doing and we’ll be fine. Or we can do things we’ve never thought about doing before and we can be exceptional.”

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