The Licking Park District has cut programming in half this year and could close completely if voters don't approve an operating levy in May.

The Licking Park District has cut programming in half this year and could close completely if voters don't approve an operating levy in May.

The parks board is scheduled to vote Tuesday to place a five-year, 0.2-mill levy request on the May 4 ballot, said Rich Niccum, park-operations administrator.

The countywide levy would raise about $750,000 annually for park operations and would cost about $6.13 a year in new taxes per $100,000 of assessed property value.

"In my opinion, that's a bargain," Niccum said. "It will cost the average homeowner about 50 cents a month. We aren't asking for large amounts to do extravagant things. We're looking for funds just to operate and continue what we're doing."

This marks the district's seventh try at the ballot in about 20 years, with the last unsuccessful attempt in 2006.

The Licking County commissioners cut the parks budget by 53 percent, or $300,000, this year as part of a 10-percent overall reduction in county spending. The county has provided about 90 percent of the park's budget.

Commissioner Doug Smith said he and his colleagues were faced with greatly reduced income from diminished returns on the county's investments and much lower sales-tax revenues, resulting in furloughs and the elimination of positions for a number of employees in several departments.

The commissioners also encouraged the other elected county officials, as well as department heads, to reduce their budgets by as much as 10 percent, resulting in across-the-board cost savings.

"Unfortunately, important programs were adversely affected by this budget shortfall, including some services provided by the Licking Park District and OSU Extension (Office)," Smith said. "I'm in full support of the parks' levy initiative."

Niccum said the district has spent conservatively.

"We were frugal enough the last two years to squirrel away funds into our park account to make up the 53-percent shortfall this year," he said. "That money will be used to plug those gaps this year. By 2011, if we don't have another source of funding, we'll look at closing facilities because we won't have money to keep open."

This year, Niccum said, park programs have been cut in half from 50 to about 25, but special events like the Haunted Park will continue because they generate revenue.

"Most of the special events make money for us," he said. "The Haunted Park makes $10,000 to $12,000 in profit. Mainly, the smaller programs like the night hikes, campfire and fishing programs will be cut back."

The district has been promoting its Park Express program over the past two months. The program gives families breaks on park fees and discounts at area attractions in exchange for a $25 annual fee.

"That brings in some revenue, but it's not a huge money generator," Niccum said. "There are 120 members at any given time."

The district currently employs five full-time staff members, including Niccum, a park ranger, a special-projects coordinator, a public-information specialist and a director/secretary.

Those employees are responsible for 1,500 acres of green space and more than 36 miles of bike trails. Park facilities include Infirmary Mound Park in Granville, Frederick R. Reese Preserve in Mary Ann Township, Lobdell Reserve in Alexandria, Morris Woods State Nature Preserve near Johnstown, Ohio Canal Greenway near Hebron, Palmer Road Swamp Preserve in Etna Township, Riverview Preserve in Newark, T.J. Evans Recreational Trail between west Newark and Johnstown, Taft Reserve and William C. Kraner Nature Center in the southeast side of the county and Tyler Powell Preserve in Pataskala.

Niccum said the parks see about 80,000 visitors annually, with Infirmary Mound being the most popular. It is the most used, seeing about 35,000 visitors annually, and it's the site of many family reunions, Niccum said.

"Even those types of things are in jeopardy," he said.

Lobdell is also a favorite, with 10,000 visitors taking advantage of the horseback-riding trails and the Frisbee disc golf course.

"We have horseback riders from all over the area, and a fair amount of folks come from Delaware County," he said. "The Frisbee disc golf course always has someone there, even in the snow."

Over the years, Niccum said, the district's goal has been to have a park facility within a 10- to 15-minute drive from all county residents.

For more about the park district's levy campaign, visit people4parks.com.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com