CALEDONIA — For six years, the Village of Caledonia didn’t have much of a parks department.
To save money after the Great Recession hit, the village effectively cut the entire parks budget in 2010, and has slowly been reviving it over the last few years.
“As a village, we’re not kind to the parks,” Trustee Jay Benkowski, who was elected in April 2017, admitted during budget discussions on Tuesday.
Parks Supervisor Randall Solberg refers to the cuts as “going to a zero budget.”
Between 2009 and 2010, the parks budget fell by nearly 75 percent, the staff was let go and the village started outsourcing maintenance work. The levy for parks dropped from $67,939 to $25,939 and salary expenditures dropped from $24,960 to zero, since everyone got laid off — some seasonal employees had been hired by 2013, but less than $13,000 was spent on paying them that year.
$17,280 was budgeted in 2009 for community classes, kids activities, baseball diamond maintenance and holiday festivities in 2009. That fell to around $80 of actual spending by 2011.
As expected, revenue dropped severely, although it had been under-performing anyway. In 2009, less than $50,500 was brought in by the parks, below half of what the budget had originally planned for. In 2011, only about $30,000 was earned.
A slow resurgence
Things really started changing four years ago.
“There was nothing,” Solberg said of parks programming when he got hired as a temporary employee in April 2014.
Solberg became full-time in January 2017, and he’s still the only employee of Caledonia Parks.
“Randall is making alchemy. He’s making money out of the air,” Benkowski said. “I think we need to throw him a bone.”
Caledonia’s sports leagues generated more than $6,000 each of the last two years, and parks advertising sales brought in upwards of $22,000 in 2018. Another $2,672 was picked up from two fundraisers that Solberg put together mostly single-handedly.
The beer garden at Joint Park, run in conjunction by Caledonia and Mount Pleasant, also turned a profit. And Village Administrator Tom Christensen said that the village-run Kraut Fest broke even, despite one of the days being rained out.
But even though revenue is slowly rising, the parks budget (excluding Joint Park) is still below where it was in 2009.
“We need to find them more money,” Trustee Dave Prott said. “I just want to see some revenue come back to the parks.”
At the Parks & Recreation Commission’s monthly meeting on Sept. 11, the commission tentatively approved $60,000 to be used to buy new playground equipment for Maple Park and Gorney Park, but that money would be coming out of the village’s impact fees and needs to be approved by the board.
“A lot of our sponsors … liked the idea (of advertising with Caledonia Parks) because they knew (the village was) going to add more stuff in the parks for the kids. That was what they want to see, so we have to do some action there,” Solberg said.
There is also a plan to develop eight acres of Crawford Park by adding pickleball courts, another baseball field, sand volleyball courts, a sledding hill and other amenities that would encourage residents to enjoy Caledonia’s parks, rather than go elsewhere.
According to a Wisconsin Policy Forum study, the City of Racine has 81 parks covering 1,127 acres for about 77,000 residents. Including Joint Park, Caledonia only has six parks, making up just shy of 145 acres, for its 24,900 residents.
A hard restart
Some friction has been generated as Caledonia Parks revs up again.
The board of the Caledonia Baseball/Softball League, which had more than 360 youth players registered in 2018, wants a new contract after feeling it had been ignored by the village.
Caledonia Baseball is a nonprofit run independently from the village, but it is given exclusive organized use of Crawford Park’s two baseball fields during the summer. But since the league is volunteer-run, its leaders oftentimes struggle to find enough parents to staff the concession stand, take care of the fields and clean the bathrooms.
Money from the summer’s fundraisers was devoted to building new dugout shelters at Crawford, but it took Solberg a couple months to actually get them built. They still aren’t 100 percent done, and Caledonia Baseball was miffed because the players weren’t provided shade while on the bench for the third straight summer. Some of the parents were worried about kids fainting on the field.
“This is not sufficient,” Caledonia Baseball President Rosie Olle said.
“As parents, volunteers (and) coaches, our only concern would be the lack of support from the community itself,” added Eric Zebrowski, whose three kids participate in Caledonia Baseball. “It seems like a wacky, hodgepodge system that doesn’t seem to be going very well.”
Solberg says that he’s so busy taking care of everything else solo that it would be tough for him to tend to Crawford’s fields and bathrooms on a weekly basis too, especially while he concurrently manages the village’s own leagues.
For all the work Solberg is doing, Village President Jim Dobbs wants to see the parks supervisor (and several other village employees) get a raise, which will be discussed at the board’s budget meeting on Tuesday. There’s also talk of hiring another part-time staff member to assist Solberg.
However, when Christensen presented the proposed Caledonia 2019 budget, funds are “tight.”
“It’s not easy to get this budget to (the village board), but I think this is fair,” he said.
Whether or not Caledonia Parks is making money is tough to say. The parks budget shows that revenue outstripped expenditures, but that specific part of the budget doesn’t include Solberg’s full salary or all of the discretionary funding spent on the parks.
Investment will likely outpace revenue again for the next couple years, especially with planned minor improvements at Gorney, an overhaul at Crawford Park and perhaps a new staff member.
Several community leaders are OK with that, but finding the balance is proving to be the challenge going forward.
“We have money, let’s spend it,” Benkowski said at the Sept. 11 Parks & Recreation Commission meeting, where he advocated for more investment in the parks.
“I don’t think it’s financially responsible to spend every dime that we’ve brought in,” Commission President Scott Warner responded. “But if we can do some of these projects, that’s incredible. I think we need to.”
“We need to find them more money ... I just want to see some revenue come back to the parks.” Dave Prott, Village of Caledonia trustee