Metro Council members came to the defense of embattled Parks Director Roy Wilson Monday as he sought to explain his department’s expected $1.77 million 2010 budget deficit.
Wilson, appearing before the Council’s Budget and Finance Committee meeting, said unexpected expenditures combined with budget directives accounted for that overshoot, along with a $704,000 overage for this year’s budget.
Though a few Council members questioned Wilson’s judgment, most seemed to back the 61-year-old parks director, with some suggesting adversaries may be out to damage Wilson’s name.
Councilman Mike Jameson, who called Wilson “top-notch” in responding to constituents, questioned a recent column in the Tennessean that he said contained a series of unfair accusations, which seemed to come from anonymous sources.
“What I don’t appreciate and what I hope is not happening here is efforts to engage in character assassination by the press,” Jameson said.
At-large Councilman Jerry Maynard said other Metro departments have historically exceeded budgets year after year, including some during this year’s budget cycle.
“We’ve not brought any of them before this Council at this type of meeting,” Maynard said. “It is not fair.”
Flanked by the parks board, Wilson explained at mid-year his department estimated savings of $400,000 but by May “things seemed to spiral out of control” after enduring three pay periods and hiring summer employees.
Around that period, Wilson said “budget pressures” arose as the department faced merchant fees and riverfront development costs, as well as demands to open the new Beaman Park and Bells Bend nature centers, keep the Cleveland pool running, and sustain operations at Shelby and Warner Parks golf courses during the winter time.
“In handling those budget pressures and those uncontrollable expenses, as director of this department, I felt I had two choices,” Wilson told Council members. “I could do it and provide the level of service or not do it and not provide the level of service.
“It came down to choosing the difficult right over the easy wrong,” Wilson said of decisions that led to the budget overshoot.
Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling said the Mayor’s Office had no indication during April, May and June that Metro Parks would be over budget for the course of the year.
“This is a good classic situation of where communication would have gone a long way towards solving some of the problems,” Riebeling said.
The parks board last week approved a plan to ease the budget deficit by eliminating five positions, avoiding the mass layoffs some had feared. The Council would need to approve a supplemental appropriation of $850,000 to make the proposal work.
Councilwoman Vivian Wilhoite said she felt a sense of responsibility from the parks department, unlike she had from Phil Ryan, executive director of the Metro Development and Housing Agency, when he recently appeared before the Council to explain how a public relations firm hired to promote the proposed convention center exceeded its budget.
“Is Mr. Phil Ryan still employed?” Wilhoite said. “I believe that he is, and we moved forward. I believe today we need to move forward with Mr. Wilson.”
Councilman Emily Evans said the greatest loss over discussing the parks department’s budget has been the message of blame it’s sent to people who work with Metro government.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Wilson,” Evans said. “I hope you’re here for many, many years to come because I think you’re a fabulous parks director.”