Council parks Mooney Grove idea
By Reggie Ellis
visalia – Located inside the city limits on the southern edge of town, many consider Mooney Grove Park to be under the jurisdiction of the City of Visalia. But the County of Tulare has always been responsible for the iconic park and will continue to do so following a recent decision by the Visalia City Council.
Last month, four-fifths of the Council was united in its opposition to Councilman Greg Collins’ idea that the City should give serious thought to taking over Mooney Grove from the County. Collins shared a story of a woman who had recently complimented Visalia’s Blain Park and was disappointed in Mooney Grove by comparison.
“There seems to be a lack of will in resurrecting this park,” Collins said.
Collins first broached the subject of the City taking over Mooney Grove during a May 8 forum on parks and open space at 210 Café in Visalia. He suggested that City would be more capable of marketing and maintaining Mooney Grove and restoring the county’s flagship park back to its former glory. He also said the City could do it without charging residents to use the park, which “violates a fundamental principle of what parks are all about.”
On June 19, Collins’ request was on the consent calendar to be considered as a discussion item for a future meeting. The Council voted down the request for both financial and jurisdictional issues.
Councilmember Phil Cox, who spent the last 12 years on the Board of Supervisors, said the County spent $12 million in improvements on Mooney Grove during that time. He said the board spent $2 million on sprinklers, $2 million to replace a failed well and did well to keep the park alive during a difficult drought.
“I don’t think people realize the magnitude of caring and maintaining that many acres,” he said. “The County has taken good care and continues to take good care of Mooney Grove.”
Vice Mayor Bob Link said he couldn’t support the idea because it was too costly. He said even if the County agreed to pay the City to do the maintenance and upkeep at the park, he said Visalia would spend 30% more to meet the standard it has set at other City parks.
“If we are doing the maintenance we would have to put people out there everyday,” he said. “It belongs with the County because there are a number of other communities that use that park.”
Before motioning for a vote to deny Collins’ request, Councilmember Steve Nelson detailed the financial quick sand of taking over Mooney Grove. He said Mooney Grove is four times larger than most Visalia parks, the City is already behind in installing irrigation at least three city parks and the City is eyeing another regional park on the eastside of the city limits. Nelson added that the Parks Department is at a 1985 staffing level while the acreage in parks has steadily increased.
“This doesn’t need to be put on the backs of our staff and our budget,” Nelson said. “Let’s put this to bed.”
Former City Councilmember and current County Supervisor Amy Shuklian was in attendance at the meeting. She said the County recently heard a report on a plan to update many of the County’s parks. On June 6, Deputy CAO John Hess presented Supervisors with a Strategic Plan for the county’s 10 parks. Hess said county parks total 628 acres, 27 full-time employees and an annual budget of $2 million. More than half of that total ($1.2 million) is budgeted for Mooney Grove and Cutler Park representing just $164,000. In comparison, the county only generates about $260,000 in revenue each year from the parks combined from gate fees, arbor rentals, camping charges and disc golf. Mooney Grove represents 41% of the total revenue generated by all 10 parks.
Hess explained that county parks were the victim of drought, tree disease and the Great Recession over the last half decade. He said Mooney Grove has fallen into disrepair because improvement projects were tabled until revenues recovered. Meanwhile, the drought not only created a breeding ground for tree mortality issues but also sucked the county’s wells dry at both Mooney and Cutler parks. Hess said the county had to spend $1 million just to replace the wells at those parks, pushing off maintenance for another year.
In the last two years, Hess said the County has repaired broken benches, barbecue pits and picnic tables through its capital improvement fund. He recommended establishing an annual Maintenance and Improvement Program (MIP) to prioritize projects at all of the parks, seeking grant funding to do one-time projects, increasing public engagement and outreach, and providing park staff with customer service training and tasking management with developing customer service protocols. The Supervisors did not approve the recommendations, instead asking Hess to return with more specifics, such as the cost of smaller improvements.
“The County has stepped up to the plate,” Shuklian said, who also left the door open for a “collaboration” discussed by Supervisor Steve Worthley at the June 6 meeting.
Mayor Warren Gubler said it was clear that more work needed to be done at the park but that the County should be the one to do. He said if county residents were unhappy with the progress made by the current Board of Supervisors they could use their vote to make a change at the top. “If nothing else, this brought additional public attention to Mooney Grove.”
Collins concluded the matter by saying, “Time will tell. We may have this conversation again.”