BREC steps up opposition to legislation that would split up parks

Sunset at BREC's Milford Wampold Memorial Park and University Lake. (File photo)

BREC is stepping up its opposition to a bill by Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, that would break up the parish parks system and create three new smaller agencies to run parks and recreation in the cities of Central and Zachary and in the prospective city of St. George once it is incorporated.

In a fact sheet released earlier this week, BREC says the bill would create additional and unnecessary layers of bureaucracy, risk BREC’s national accreditation status and jeopardize transformational projects that benefit the entire parish—like the planned overhaul of the zoo and Greenwood Park—by removing about 30% of the system’s revenues.

White caught many off guard last week, when he filed SB205, including Central Mayor David Barrow, members of the Central City Council, Metro Council member Aaron Moak, and members of Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s administration, according to Barrow, who found out about the bill when Moak called him.

“We were totally blindsided and we are all concerned,” Barrow says. “I have an excellent relationship with BREC. They are doing everything we ask them to and this bill is being pushed with no input from the public, no public discussion and the public doesn’t even get to vote on it.”

The bill would affect 50 parks out of the 180 in the BREC system, including 11 in Zachary and 14 in Central, and would slash BREC revenues by an estimated 30%.

White, who filed a similar bill more than a decade ago, has said the intent of his legislation is to create smaller agencies that are more efficient and more directly responsive to the communities in which the parks are located.

“Zachary and Central have the top two school districts in the state,” White says. “When we get control of our own parks, we’ll have the best parks in the state, too.”

But BREC Superintendent Corey Wilson says White has not produced any numbers to support his case, and notes that while Central property taxes have generated some $2.5 million a year for BREC, the agency has spent more than $17 million on parks and programs in Central over the past five years.

“It’s fine to say we’re not efficient but show me the numbers,” Wilson says. “Show me how you can do it better.”

Barrow and Wilson believe White is motivated less by concerns about efficiency and more by the desire for greater control over the BREC Sports Park in Central, which BREC has spent more than $8.5 million developing in recent years.

Wilson, who was not completely surprised by SB205, says he and BREC Commissioner Collis Temple Jr. met last month with White, who told them at the time he had some issues with the sports park.

“He told us he wasn’t happy about the way things are being operated and that he had requested, on behalf of another organization, eight dates for Little League games and was only given six,” Wilson says. “That was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

White is president of the Central Area Youth League, according to records filed with the Louisiana secretary of state. The CAYL runs youth sports programs in Central and plays most of its home games at the Central Sports Park.

Wilson says BREC is happy to discuss turning over management of the park to the CAYL through a cooperative endeavor agreement, much as it has done at the Burbank soccer fields with the Baton Rouge Soccer Association.

Until then, he says BREC has an obligation to multiple stakeholders, not just the CAYL.

White says his problems with BREC are not related to issues with the CAYL.

“It’s not about that,” he says. “We were told we would have a lot of control over our parks. We don’t.”

One of White’s co-sponsors on the bill, Sen. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, says he is unaware of any internecine turf battles in Central.

Foil, whose district includes parts of St. George, says he agreed to co-sponsor the bill because White called him and asked him.

Foil also notes that it is early in the process and that it’s too soon to jump to any conclusions about the eventual outcome of the legislation.

“A lot of information will be brought forth and it’s a big system that will be difficult to unwind,” Foil says. “And I’m not saying we’ll necessarily move forward with what he initially filed but this will give us an opportunity to get feedback on all sides.”

Foil says he agrees with Barrow that the people should get to vote on dismantling the system.

Foil isn’t the only co-sponsor of the bill. Sens. Heather Cloud, Cameron Henry and Greg Tarver,  are all co-authors. All three also sit on the Republican-dominated Senate Committee on Local and Municipal Affairs, which will be the first committee to take up the bill. 

(Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from its original version to include comments from White, who was in a legislative committee hearing earlier and unable to respond.)