COL Merger is worth studying

Combined city-county park system change considered

A possible merger of the Rochester and Olmsted County park systems is up for discussion again as a result of the current budget cutbacks.

The Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce has requested that the city and county study the proposal. Chamber officials met last month with city and county officials to discuss the issue.

John Eckerman, government affairs director for the Chamber, said, "Now's the time to do it, with the budget crunch. We've talked about different kinds of merger and this seemed to be a good one to start with."

; Richard Devlin, county administrator, said he planned to poll members of the county board to determine their interest in the subject. Stevan Kvenvold, city administrator, said the city is willing to study the issue and that he and Devlin have discussed it and will meet again.


The city and county have long been served by three combined departments -- the public health department, Rochester-Olmsted Planning Department and the joint dispatch service used by the police and sheriff departments. All three have been rated highly for their accomplishments. There has also been some consideration in the past of merging other departments as well -- including the park departments and the legal, accounting and human resources departments.

The city and county park systems have very different missions. The city department operates the Rochester Recreation Center, Silver Lake and Soldiers Field parks with outdoor swimming pools, the Mayo Field baseball diamond, numerous athletic fields, and many neighborhood parks. It has 3,900 acres of park land, a 2003 budget of $9.4 million and 69 employees.

The county department is responsible for Chester Woods Park, Oxbow Park and the county fairgrounds. It has 2,100 acres of park land, a budget of $1.2 million and 15 employees. Both systems hire hundreds of seasonal employees.

Neither park system manager has expressed enthusiasm for a merger. Roy Sutherland, superintendent of the Rochester system, said both systems are stretched already. He said they already work as partners at the county fairgrounds, where the Rochester department manages the Graham Arena complex under contract.

Jim Foote, superintendent of the county parks division, said the two departments have very different roles and combining them would do little to improve efficiency.

Merging government agencies is not an easy task and the process is not guaranteed to save money or improve efficiency. However, the three city-county departments that have been combined in the past all function well and serve both the city and county effectively.

In view of the ongoing need to get the most out of every tax dollar, it would make sense to conduct a careful study to determine whether a combined park system is feasible and, if so, how it could be done.


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