Serious work on the 2015 municipal budget is still months away, but patchwork in Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, slated for after the holidays, is a reminder that the city of Beaufort must repair its finances, too.
Unfortunately, the city has not had much of a plan to pay for park repairs since the 2012 expiration of a tax increment finance district that once covered the expense.
A sinkhole has appeared in the park, and it will cost about $2,500 if the city's public works department fixes it. The price rises to $5,000 to $6,000 if the work requires a contractor. As it stands, these expenses must be addressed with budget amendments, according to public works director Isiah Smalls.
Three significant sinkholes at least 4 feet deep and 6 feet around have appeared in the park in the past year. If more holes develop, Smalls estimates budget changes of $30,000 to $35,000 could be needed by time the fiscal year ends June 30.
Fortunately, the frequency of the sinkholes has decreased since the park underwent major renovations in 2006. Nonetheless, sinkholes will probably be a reality for "as long as that park exists," Smalls said.
It only makes sense for the city to have a long-range plan to preserve an amenity often used by residents and visitors and that is vital to the downtown economy.
Yet, in some respects, Beaufort is moving in the opposite direction.
This past summer, City Council closed the gap on the budget by cutting back on maintenance and landscaping at the park and elsewhere.
"This is a very lean budget for this city, and I'm hoping we can do better, but I'm not confident that we can keep whittling away," Councilman Mike Sutton said at the time. "We need to have a way to maintain these things in the future."
Councilwoman Donnie Beer cast the lone vote against the budget, citing concerns that cuts will harm the city's quality of life. "I'm just afraid that we're going to fall back and not be able to maintain our assets as well as we have done," she said.
That ability is going to be further tested as the Spanish Moss Trail is extended. Sections of the path run through city limits. Like the park, it is both a potential economic engine and an ongoing expense.
Council members seemed aware of and concerned by the problem this past summer, but because repairs know no season, neither does their angst.
The ideal time to provide for ongoing maintenance is before these public amenities are built. None of these council members were in authority during the Waterfront Park's construction, but the trail is developing on their watch.
They should not wait until budget time to start patching fiscal sinkholes.