EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was written in response to a reader-submitted request through Open Source, a platform where readers can ask Richland Source’s newsroom to write about an event or get a question answered.
“I would like to see the city of Mansfield put in a new public pool at Liberty Park. Something big enough to handle large amounts of swimmers. I would also like to see the park fully renovated and new picnic shelters and restrooms so that the people of Mansfield have a nice place to go. It would also look attractive to potentially get people to move back to town and want to raise their families here. We really need to do something to attract people to our great City of Mansfield.”
MANSFIELD — The largest city in Richland County has had no public swimming pool since the Liberty Park facility closed permanently in August 2021 due to major maintenance issues.
This is the second full summer of no place for children and families in Mansfield, with a population of 48,000, to escape the summer heat by diving into the cool waters of a public pool.
The city, using grant money from the Richland County Foundation, opened two concrete splash pads in North Lake Park and Johns Park in 2022, though both experienced operational issues.
But as the two-year anniversary of the Liberty Park pool approaches, there are no easy answers as to when the city will again have a public pool or when additional elements of its “master plan” for parks will be implemented.
One thing, however, is clear — nothing is going to happen quickly at this point.
Mayor Tim Theaker has less than six months left in his final term in office and there is no money in the 2023 budget for a pool or additional expansive park plans, other than what is taking place at the “Sterkel Park for All.”
The city will have a new mayor, finance director and law director for the first time in 12 years when 2024 begins — and perhaps some new faces on City Council.
Regardless of whose hand is on the rudder, decisions about park improvements — and a new public pool — all come down to one thing.
Or the lack thereof.
Fiscal emergency 2009-2014
An understanding of current financial issues with the city’s parks has to begin with the examination of a painful financial journey that began 14 years ago.
The City of Mansfield went into five years of state-ordered fiscal emergency in 2009 after years of spending more money than it received. No one could say they didn’t see it coming.
Dave Yost, then the state auditor, placed Mansfield under fiscal watch Dec. 15, 2009. The city had forecasted deficit for that year of $2.9 million in its general fund.
Fiscal emergency was instituted on Aug. 19, 2010, after deficits in seven funds came to $3.8 million.
Many tough decisions had to be made in order to correct the city’s books. Priorities had to be established as belts were tightened.
City workers were laid off. Retirees or others leaving the city’s employ were not replaced. Fees charged to residents were increased in a myriad of ways.
As part of the required cost cutting, Mansfield’s parks system was ordered closed. The entire department was shelved for five years. Maintaining the city’s parks was not a high priority item.
PRIDE Tax approved in 2013
A key to bringing back the parks came when Theaker and City Council asked voters to approve a quarter-percent income tax increase in November 2013.
The PRIDE tax, which stands for parks and recreation, illumination and demolition and emergency services, was designed to raise about $3.7 million annually for those specific services.
The tax allots 50 percent of its revenue to Mansfield’s fire and police departments, 22 percent to the parks and recreation department, 20 percent demolition and eight percent to illumination.
It was not an easy sell, approved by just a 141-vote citywide margin (3,414 to 3,273).
The PRIDE tax, which now generates about $850,000 for parks and recreation, allowed the parks department to return in 2014 after a five-year hiatus, led by Mark Abrams, the parks and rec superintendent.
The tax was successfully renewed in 2017 and 2021.
With PRIDE tax money over the last eight years, Abrams has been able to begin a gradual rebuild of the parks system, including maintenance and mowing and new playground equipment at several sites.
The department has also been able to participate in summer programming for youth and other events.
Abrams even proposed a new skatepark at Maple Lake Park in 2019, a project City Council hotly debated and ultimately never approved.
Abrams ended up pulling the project, estimated between $135,00 and $150,000.
“It was my decision,” Abrams said at the time. “We will wait until we can complete the master plan for the parks and incorporate it into that plan. The political climate is just not right at this time (to pursue it).”
The city also made the decision in 2020 to transfer 10 of its 31 parks to the Richland County Land Bank. Abrams said continuing to maintain 31 parks was straining his budget, which relied solely on PRIDE revenue.
“This is something that needed to be done for years,” Abrams told City Council. “We are at a crossroads with our parks department. Either we grow our department or we shrink our footprint. With the conversations about the (city) budget earlier, there is probably no realistic possibility of growing the budget,” Abrams said.
‘Master plan’ for parks unveiled in 2020
At the same October meeting during council agreed to divest itself of the 10 parks, members approved a $29 million “master plan” for the city parks.
No specific projects were approved. No dollars were authorized. It was merely a vote showing legislative support for the plan.
The proposal had improvements spelled out in all of the parks. That included an $8 million aquatic facility at Liberty Park, which at that time was home to the city’s only remaining, albeit aging, public pool, which had opened in 1938.
The city contracted in recent years with the YMCA of North Central Ohio to operate the pool, a run that came to an end in 2021 when the pool was closed for good.
At the time, Abrams said there was a problem inside a “water line that’s probably been buried for 85 years” that led to problems with the retaining wall inside the pool pump house. The city had been forced to close the pool early the last two years due to maintenance problems.
“We’re not exactly sure why it blew out or how, but there’s a major issue,” Abrams told council at the time. “We will not be opening the pool in 2022.”
That loss of the city’s only pool quickened the pace for the new aquatics center.
Theaker proposed and City Council agreed to place a quarter-percent income tax issue increase designated solely for capital improvements for the parks and recreation department.
If it had been approved, the four-year tax would have generated a total of $15 to $16 million, enough to build the new aquatics center and begin to fund other improvements found in the master plan.
The issue was placed on the May 2022 primary election ballot. Abrams said its passage was key to park improvements.
“It would be impossible to do any kind of major projects,” he said.
“Besides the pool, a lot of the stuff that we’re looking at doing is to enhance security and improve movement through the parks. Like for instance, better lighting, possible security cameras, some resurfacing of parking lots and just making things more secure.
“We want people to be able to get out and do stuff and just hopefully deter some of the vandalism,” he said.
However, the tax request came at a time when gas was $4 per gallon and inflation was raging across the country.
Some 55 percent of voters rejected the notion with about 18 percent of the city’s eligible voters participating.
“Hopefully, this isn’t a referendum on the parks. I hope the citizens of Mansfield enjoy their parks. I really do. I just hope this is an issue of everybody’s paying too much for everything else right now,” Abrams said on Election Night.
What comes next?
That’s the $29 million question.
And it’s one the next city administration will need to tackle in terms of tackling the “master plan” for the community parks.
When assisting in developing the “master plan,” the Columbus-based company EMH&T surveyed local residents in 2020.
That survey found that almost 80 percent believed the lone pool at Liberty Park didn’t meet the needs of the community. More than 70 percent said “go big!” when asked how to improve the pool situation. Almost 80 percent said keeping a community pool open is important to the community.
A public pool was included in the goals of the Mansfield Rising downtown investment plan.
So it’s clear there is support for the proposal.
The question remains, however. How will it be funded?
Will the next administration go back to the ballot to seek voter approval for the issue?
Will it try to find a way within an existing tight city budget to build it?
Can a public-private partnership be struck to make the pool a reality?
Answers should be forthcoming, beginning in 2024.