Park plan end run attempted

Bellevue officials unhappy with a council decision to hire the borough’s engineering firm to develop a plan for the town’s parks decided to strike out on their own, resulting in a heated exchange at the pre-council meeting last Tuesday.

Last month, council voted to hire the borough’s engineer to prepare a plan for the borough’s parks that would make the borough eligible for grant funds in the future. The estimated cost of $35,000 to $40,000 was to be split over this year and next, and come from available funds. Council’s parks and recreation committee said that it had been determined that grants for park planning were hard to come by, and would delay the borough in obtaining actual project grants. The cost of hiring the borough’s engineer was said to be less than that of other firms, because the engineer already had done much of the work that would be necessary to cover Bayne Park as part of the three-phase skate plaza project.

Within hours of that vote by council, council president Mark Helbling was lobbying officials to rescind the vote and look at other options. About the same time, borough treasurer Joe Scioscia announced that he would draft a plan for free, and stated that he was qualified to do this because he had looked at park plans from other towns, and, while working for a defense contractor, had helped draft a proposal for funding.

Scioscia was directed to meet with the parks committee the next week to discuss his proposal. By all accounts, that meeting was adversarial, at best.
Parks committee chair Lynn Tennant Heffley said that Scioscia came to the meeting making false accusations about deficiencies in the engineer’s proposal for the parks master plan -- a proposal that had not yet been submitted by the engineer -- and that Scioscia told the committee that he would be doing the plan, not the engineer, because he “had the votes” and the committee could do nothing to stop him. In fact, by his own admission, Scioscia had already contacted Allegheny County as a representative of the borough of Bellevue to set up a meeting on the parks master plan.

Scioscia also was on the agenda at the finance committee meeting. That committee is chaired by Kathy Coder, who recently resigned her seat on the parks committee, saying that she was not being kept apprised of committee work that occurred at meetings she failed to attend.

Coder said the parks master plan was discussed in some length at the finance committee meeting, prompting questions at the pre-council meeting about how a parks matter had ended up on the finance committee agenda. Coder and Helbling maintained that any council member could have input on any subject before council, a point with which the borough solicitor agreed. The solicitor noted that there was a difference between what elected officials can do and what they should do, however, and most find assigning topics to the proper committee to be most efficient. “It’s the way most good councils function,” he said.

Henry Lenard, who joined the parks committee when Coder resigned, spoke directly to Coder: “I’m not angry at you, Kathy, I’m disappointed. You resigned from the parks committee and the first thing you do” is take on a parks-related issue.

Scioscia later said that he was not out of line in reaching out as a representative of the borough or moving ahead with his proposal because he had been told to do so by Coder.

Scioscia told council that the parks committee was attempting to develop a master plan with specific proposals for improvements to the park, when his research indicated that the first step was to develop a comprehensive plan that detailed how the parks were being used. He also said that the committee had no plans to gather the public input necessary for a comprehensive plan, and that the borough could not qualify for any grant funds until the initial comprehensive plan was needed.

In fact, the committee announced a month ago that public surveys and meetings would be part of the planning process. Borough engineer Ben Gilberti said that a simple comprehensive plan was more appropriate for a town that did not already have park space and defined facilities and uses. As to the availability of grants without a comprehensive plan, Gilberti pointed out that the state has provided grant funding for all phases of the skate plaza project.

He added that the plan to be developed by the engineering firm would involve a landscape architect certified in park planning by the state, and would address numerous issues such as safety and handicapped accessibility, and would develop specific projects that were ready to be included in an application for grant funds.

Heffley said that Scioscia had never approached the committee with an offer to help, but rather had shown up and announced that things would be done his way.

“We’re trying to do this the proper way,” Heffley said.

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