St. Paul residents could see shorter recreation center hours, fewer aquatics and youth sports programs and reduced ice rink maintenance in 2021, as the Parks and Recreation Department seeks to cut more than $1 million from its budget.

The nearly 3% cut, which will be met mainly by reducing staffing, comes at a moment when the city is facing both major revenue shortfalls and an increased demand for parks and recreation services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Access to the programs and services play a vital role in maintaining mental and physical health for all of our residents," Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm told City Council members Wednesday. "Our public realm and direct services have never been more important."

Yet, like nearly every city department, Parks and Recreation will have to help offset a nearly $20 million budget shortfall in 2021. Because Mayor Melvin Carter's proposed budget calls for zero layoffs, a 0% property tax levy increase and no use of emergency reserves, departments will have to eliminate vacant jobs and trim services to fill the gap.

Council members are scheduled to set the maximum levy change next week and could vote for an increase. But given the financial challenges residents are facing, there's little appetite to do so, said Council President Amy Brendmoen.

"None of these are cuts we want to make," she said. "Hopefully, in a lot of cases, they're only one-year reductions."

The parks department proposes cutting the equivalent of more than 20 full-time jobs; shortening hours at recreation centers and pools and eliminating lap swimming and water aerobics; partnering with outside organizations to provide sports programs for children over age 8; and reducing ice rink and recreation center maintenance.

There will also be efforts to pull in more revenue at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, including raising the suggested donation for adults and children and using automated kiosks for credit card donations — a new service that was supposed to roll out earlier this year but was delayed due to technology challenges and pandemic-related closures, Hahm said.

Public safety spending

As in previous years, Parks and Recreation will be a central part of Carter's "community-first" public safety strategy.

There's also a proposed $328,000 in the 2021 parks budget for the Awakenings Intervention Program, which, according to the city, connects St. Paul children between ages 6 and 13 with mental health support after they "have publicly engaged in personal and/or communal destructive activities."

Preliminary planning started before COVID-19, Hahm said, and the need has only grown during the pandemic and in the aftermath of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

"We do want our community recreation program, our rec center staff, to be available to provide service and make connections with these kids and young people," Hahm said. "And in order to do that, we need a resource that's different from what we're currently providing at these sites."

Though council members have generally been supportive of community-first public safety initiatives, some had questions about adding new spending when cuts are being made elsewhere.

Council Members Jane Prince and Rebecca Noecker said they want more information about how staff will be hired and trained, how many children will be served and how they'll be selected.

"There's a lot of questions that I still have that I think we need to have answered," Noecker said.

Council Member Mitra Jalali said that, like her colleagues, she had only recently learned about the Awakenings program — but she said she'd like the council to direct the same level of scrutiny toward the police department.

"I just really believe it's important to start holding that line and having fair standards for much longer, more established departments with significantly more resource and public expectation," she said.