County must step up game to meet PALS challenge

info@islandpacket.comMay 10, 2013 

Where recreation is concerned, Beaufort County has been too willing to substitute advice for leadership and with predictable results: The first of two reports commissioned last fall for a total of about $50,000 has been released, and in it, a consultant states the obvious and recommends the untenable.

Ballard King Associates describes Beaufort County's Department of Parks and Leisure Services as "dysfunctional" and says its staff "must be held more accountable" -- to which anyone familiar with PALS would say, "No duh."

It also suggests the department shift responsibility for field maintenance and programming to municipalities within the next three to five years -- to which many people would say, "No thanks."

It perhaps is too much to expect that a company from Colorado would fully grasp the history of publicly provided recreation in Beaufort County, or the arrangement that arose over the past three decades from a conglomeration of county and municipal operations.

Today's operation is complex, touching on issues of race and economic disparity and highlighting differences between newcomers and long-time residents, as well as those who dwell in rural, urban and suburban areas.

It also should be obvious to even the most casual of observers that dividing responsibility for maintenance would be terribly inefficient, particularly for high-traffic outdoor fields that require specialized care far different than mowing the City Hall lawn.

Foisting program management on municipalities that might not want or be able to afford it -- and duplicating government overhead in the process -- is similarly ill advised.

On the other hand, hiring out maintenance work might make sense. So would relinquishing administration of youth-sports leagues to private volunteer groups, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs, the YMCA, the Island Recreation Association and similar organizations.

This would mean PALS handles less money, purchases less equipment, schedules fewer games and books fewer game officials -- tasks at which it has proved itself to be inefficient or worse.

Where volunteer groups do not rise from the community, PALS can continue to administer leagues. With less on its plate, it might do so more competently.

These are all simple points that many of PALS' constituents have been making for years. That the county felt compelled to hire a consultant suggests a leadership vacuum that extends beyond a single county department. And make no mistake, there is a leadership vacuum at PALS.

For the better part of two decades, its directors have been a procession of short-timers unable to transform a dysfunctional culture, full-timers who treated the job like a part-time one and well-intentioned people ill-equipped to lead the department's disparate programs.

And that's when the department had any leadership at all.

For a while, no one directed PALS countywide, and for the past two years or so, it has had no director whatsoever.

Advice from out-of-towners? That's not what PALS needs.

It needs a competent, determined director and a county government that will find one.

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