Guilford County government may have a brand new department soon – a Guilford County Parks and Recreation Department.

Currently, the county’s parks operations fall under the Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Department, but now the Board of Commissioners is strongly considering a move that would break parks services off and put those services into a new department.

Commissioners behind splitting parks and rec off from the county’s facilities department say the move will make county park operations more efficient, cause fewer problems in the future and perhaps even boost the local economy by bringing in more parks-based tourism. They say a stand-alone parks department with a director familiar with recreation programs would allow a new emphasis on parks programing in Guilford County and could shift the county’s current parks model to one resembling more active city parks and recreation departments.

Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson said it made sense to make the change and that he expects the Board of Commissioners to address the matter at its annual retreat in early February.

Branson said that, before former Guilford County Parks Division Director Thomas Marshburn stepped down from that position to take a job in Davidson County last year, Marshburn was having trouble operating the parks system effectively while it was part of the facilities department.

It’s no secret that Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece, who has a background in facilities with the US Postal Service, and Marshburn, a parks guy through and through, did not see eye to eye on many things, and the two banged heads frequently until Marshburn left.

Branson said the current structure, with parks under facilities, hasn’t proved efficient and it creates an extra level of bureaucracy for a Guilford County parks director. He also said it makes it harder to run the county’s parks, plan events and create parks programs.

“It was difficult for Thomas to go through Robert,” Branson said.

Branson added that, before the current structure was adopted a few years ago, Marshburn and his team “had been doing a lot of it themselves.” Branson said that, with parks under facilities, a lot of decisions by Marshburn were “overridden.”

He said he thought the county would likely be better served with a dedicated parks director. Branson said he wasn’t being critical of McNiece but was making the point that the skill set needed in a facilities director/property manager – who manages buildings, oversees construction and buys and sells real estate – isn’t the same skill set needed for the proper operation and oversight of parks.

Branson added that Guilford County’s parks have been taking on more and more importance when it comes to drawing visitors in. He said athletic tournaments and similar events were big business and that a dedicated parks director could help grow those programs and increase the amount of visitor dollars coming into Guilford County.

“I do think from the standpoint of economic development it’s crucial,” Branson said of the county’s parks system.

This is also a major goal of the City of Greensboro, which has been trying to work with the county to develop more soccer fields and other athletic facilities.

Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp also said he has a strong inclination to see the county establish a stand-alone parks department.

“Anything that helps our departments run more effectively and smoothly – I’m all for,” Trapp said.

He said Guilford County’s current structure is very unusual and creates problems.

“The city certainly doesn’t have parks and rec combined with facilities,” Trapp said.

Trapp, who’s served on the Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau board, added that he knows a well-run parks system can really be a key to new economic activity.

“There is a huge amount of tourism and money in Guilford County that is centered around these activities,” Trapp said of parks-related events.

Before Jan. 1, 2013, Guilford County outsourced its parks management and maintenance to other local governments, but at that time the county created an entire new parks division, which added about 30 employees to the county’s payroll. That meant that Guilford County took over the salaries for those employees, as well as the expense of managing them, handling the payroll for those employees and providing benefits.

Trapp, who was elected in late 2012 after the parks transfer had been set in motion, has been critical in the past of Guilford County’s move to take over the operations of its parks from the towns and cities – because, he’s fond of saying, cities generally have more experience and know-how when it comes to running parks.

This week Trapp said, “If you are going to do something, you need to do it right and do it all the way.”

Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said he had no comment regarding making the county’s parks operations into a separate department. He did, however, make a very interesting remark during the board’s Thursday, Jan. 5 meeting.   At that meeting, the Board of Commissioners surprised many people by reducing the size of the Guilford County Parks and Recreation Commission by half, cutting it from 18 members to nine. After that sudden move, at the end of the discussion on the county’s parks and recreation operations, Phillips said, “We’re not done yet.”

Phillips said this week that, while he doesn’t have anything to say on a push to create a county parks and rec department, if the question is will the current board continue to seek changes to Guilford County government to make it more effective and efficient as it has done over the past four years, then the answer is yes. The chairman said the Board of Commissioners should approach all problems with well-thought-out and sometimes new solutions and sometimes, he said, that means large changes in the way government operates.

Phillips said the board should constantly be discussing ways in which county government can be improved – not just in the area of parks and recreation, but for all county services.

“I think we should always be asking those questions and, when it makes sense, make changes,” Phillips said. “We should make tough decisions when it’s the right thing to do.”

Phillips also said that if a past action isn’t generating the kind of results citizens want then the board should revisit previous decisions.

Guilford County Commissioner Alan Perdue said breaking parks and recreation off into its own department is something he can support if he’s convinced it would help the county provide parks services more efficiently.

Perdue said that, as a general rule, Guilford County needs to start questioning assumptions and be careful to not run the county a certain way just because it’s always been done that way in the past. He said that, years ago, when he was learning the ropes of Guilford County Emergency Services – eventually becoming director of that department – some of of the biggest money and time wasters he witnessed were due to people continuing to do things the same way they were done 25 years earlier – even though things had changed and it was no longer a good idea to do it that way.

Commissioner Hank Henning said he’s open to the idea of separating out the parks department, but he added that he wants more information.

“I can see the logic behind it,” he said of the move.

Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing didn’t return calls to the Rhino Times and McNiece said he had no comment on the matter.

The county commissioners have had constant headaches and issues coming from its parks and open space operations for years.   There’s been a long-running battle over open space on many fronts, and, for the last year and a half, the board has been engaged in a highly publicized battle over whether or not to allow mountain biking at Rich Fork Preserve in High Point.

One former long-time county parks employee said that morale had fallen very low in that department. He said that recently there had been a lot of shifts in positions and responsibilities, resulting in a current parks and rec command structure that made little to no sense to him and many other workers in the department.

When Marshburn left last year to take a job as Davidson County Parks and Recreation director, he did so for less pay than he was getting in Guilford County – though at that time the move was portrayed by some county officials as Marshburn getting an offer that was “too good to refuse” from the neighboring county.

According to Guilford County Human Resources Director John Dean, Marshburn’s position has not been filled and HR “is not recruiting for this position at this time.”

If the commissioners do create the new parks department, it will essentially split the facilities department in half. Currently, the facilities department has 60 positions and 30 of those are parks and recreation jobs. If one counts the seasonal parks employees then the county’s parks department contains the majority of workers in the facilities department.

Guilford County has seven parks that it owns in whole or in part. It owns Bur-Mil, Gibson, Guilford-Mackintosh, Hagan-Stone, Northeast and Southwest parks. Guilford County also co-owns Triad Park with Forsyth County.

Until 2013, Guilford County was paying the City of Greensboro nearly $330,000 to run and maintain Bur-Mil Park and about $240,000 to do the same with Hagan-Stone Park. Guilford County now runs those two parks as well as Gibson Park, which was previously managed by Jamestown, and Southwest and Northeast parks, which were both managed by Gibsonville.

Last year, Lawing said Guilford County was operating under a “county park model.” He said there are two basic park models – the municipal versus the county park model. He said the municipal model was one in which the government ran a lot of park activities such as soccer leagues and youth baseball tournaments, while, in the county model, the government focused on creating nice parks and building more facilities without getting too involved in how those facilities were used.

While that’s been Guilford County’s model in the past, it may be changing soon. Part of the driving force to create a new parks department is that some commissioners would like to see the county get more active in creating and running parks programs.

Trapp said one benefit of creating the new department is that it could be more proactive in this respect.

“As far as [parks] programing goes, we’re going to have to step it up as a county,” Trapp said. “I think that’s an untapped development.”

Since the Republican county commissioners took control from the Democratic commissioners in 2012, their general movement in regard to the structure of county government has been toward consolidation. For instance, the Republican board merged health, social services and child support services into a Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services and combined Animal Control and the Animal Shelter into a new Animal Services Department.

The board has created a new department in that time – the Guilford County Family Justice Center.