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Parks considers downsizing Sellwood's Center, despite strong program activity

by: MERRY MACKINNON - Sellwood Community Center has been operating as a community center since 1920, and Kim Calame, shown, has been its recreation supervisor for nine years. Proposed cuts to the Center's budget could force her to move to another facility, and she's to be replaced by a part-time staff person next October. With city bureaus having been directed by Portland Mayor and Eastmoreland resident Charlie Hales to each prepare a 10-percent budget cut, Portland Parks and Recreation – as part of millions in cuts – has proposed to “reorganize” the Sellwood Community Center.

This reorganization would sharply reduce program activities, and eliminate full-time staff at the Center.

If implemented, the budget proposal for Sellwood Community Center would fill a $60,000 funding hole, said Portland Parks and Recreation Media Relations Officer Mark Ross. The Center’s doors would stay open, and preschool and some volunteer-run martial arts programs would continue, and space would still be available for rentals.

The Center would still receive General Fund-supported maintenance, and part-time staffing from the Mt. Scott Center.

But the Founder and Chair of the Friends of Sellwood Community Center, Kevin Downing, in last month’s BEE Guest Editorial, called the proposed cuts “pennywise and pound foolish”. Downing argued that since Sellwood Community Center pays for much of its own activities through community-supported programs, “Curtailing the Center’s programs instead sends a perverse message to the community that saving $60,000 is worth losing over $300,000 in program activity that residents value with their pocketbooks.”

When we asked, by e-mail, Portland Parks and Recreation to respond to Downing’s comments, Ross said that while program activity covers 75 percent of the cost to run the center programs, it doesn’t cover all of it.

“The revenue mentioned is gross revenue, not net,” Ross said. “Most of the $350,000-plus gross revenue the center generates helps pay for the direct cost of programs – instructors, materials, and services needed for operating the center.”

In the fiscal year 2011 to 2012, Sellwood Community Center's total budget, according to Ross, was $376,274. Of that, program revenues brought in $282,747. The rest, cited by Ross at $93,527, came from the General Fund. (In an analysis done by SMILE Board Member and mathematician Bradley Heinz, the amount coming from General Funds is closer to $84,000 – see related article.)

Ross also pointed out that the volume of programs currently delivered at Sellwood Community Center is made possible through the efforts of two full-time paid staff members – a recreation coordinator and a recreation supervisor who, respectively, earn salaries and benefits of $79,584 and $115,530 for a total cost of $195,114.

“Unfortunately, without General Fund support, the staff level cannot remain as is, and that means the current level of programming could not be sustained [unless we are able to find other sources to replace the General Fund].”

If implemented, proposed cuts would make Sellwood Community Center a satellite of Mt. Scott Community Center, with administrative decisions made by the director there.

“The Mt Scott Community Center Director will have discretion to keep additional programs at Sellwood Community Center that make financial sense,” Ross said.

Under the proposed cuts impacting other community centers, Ross said Mt. Scott Community Center would lose one staff position, and its director would have additional responsibility for overseeing activities at the Sellwood Community Center. Mt. Scott Community Center has a total budget of just under $2 million, with $1.3 million from program revenue, and the remainder from the General Fund.

“At Mt. Scott Community Center, like our other full-service community centers, Southwest, East Portland, Matt Dishman, and to a lesser extent Charles Jordan, we do have a greater ability to serve a large number of patrons,” Ross said. “In fact, last year, Mt. Scott Community Center had the highest number of visits of any center in our system at 470,588.”

Last year, Sellwood Community Center had 46,039 visits.

If budget cuts are adopted, summer programming at Sellwood Community Center would continue as scheduled, and reorganization would take place in the fall.

"As we did last year when considering changes to our Fulton and Hillside Community Centers, Portland Parks & Recreation is eager to engage in problem-solving conversations with the community to determine if there is another way to fill this $60,000 gap at Sellwood Community Center," Ross said.

“It's an out-of-scale cut, from my perspective,” Downing later said in a phone interview. “A community center should be a place where ‘community’ is built.”

Then, sounding hopeful about the potential for some kind of agreement with Portland Parks and Recreation, he added, “Maybe we can keep it going as a full-throated community center, with a wide variety of programs.”