Neighbors Parks and Rec

Interview: Mike Heller, GM of the Rio Linda Elverta Recreation and Parks District

I recently sat down with Mike Heller, who has been the General Manager of the Rio Linda Elverta Recreation and Parks District since he took over five years ago. We talked about how the district successfully navigated the roiling waters of COVID, The current state of affairs in the District, and what the future looks like for our community.

Our cover has Mike Heller on the right, director Becky McDaniel (center), and director Stacey Bastian (left).


John Todd: I wanted to talk to you about the Rio Linda Elverta Recreation and Park District and how you guys have navigated COVID, and how things are looking on the other side.

Mike Heller: The park district came through COVID relatively unscathed for a public agency. We’ve been fiscally solvent for, well, a number of years, even during the downturn back in 2008. We scrimped and saved and it’s paying dividends now and really for this community. It’s one of the community’s best-kept secrets I would say. We run seven, or eight special events per year. We have a number of youth programs all throughout the year, especially in the summer. We’re the operators of the swimming pool in the summertime. It’s a great opportunity for the families in Rio Linda and Elverta. But more importantly than that, We have a publicly elected board and this board has remained intact over the five years I’ve been here. It’s been a great experience working with them and seeing what they’re doing for this community because they really care.

JT: I think Jerry (Huffines) was the most recent director.

MH: Jerry came on in 2018. We didn’t have an election that year, in 2018. It was by acclamation. We had three people running for three spots. Unfortunately, one of the current board members at the time their paperwork was not filled out properly. So by the time they found out, it was too late and the deadline had passed, but Jerry is the most recent Director. We just lost Stacy (Bastian) to Twin Rivers Unified School District. She took a provisional appointment there, so she had to resign (from RLERPD). So we’ll have a vacancy that will be announced next Wednesday at our board meeting. Then we’ll go through the process to fill that and we should have it filled by the board meeting in May.

Front row, from left: Becky McDaniel, Lisa Morris, Stacey Bastian, Charlea Moore, Jerry Huffines. – Seated with the 2018 State Champion RLHS Knights football team.

JT: So when COVID hit in late March of 2020, when the county called and said, “Okay, everybody go home now!” How did you guys deal with that? How did you… did you lock up the office for a while? Did you stop all of the events? I imagine it would be softball season, probably the end of basketball?

MH: And we had an egg hunt scheduled.

JT: Oh geeze…

March 2020: COVID

MH: Yeah, a lot of other things were happening. So what we did is we made an announcement to our staff that we were sending everybody home paid until further notice. We had a board meeting scheduled that we canceled. We closed on March 17th on St. Patrick’s day… and the next night set up a special board meeting two weeks later once we sort of had an idea of what was supposed to be happening. We canceled the remainder of the basketball program and any other programs that were going on at that time. So all of our contractors, karate, and Joanna’s kids just stopped. The building was closed. We’re still a county agency, so we had to follow through with County health. We held registrations for what was coming up in the spring, adult softball, and any of our spring events, swimming was a big one because we do stroke and turn clinics in April and May with the swim team. So we sort of held on to all that and we told families that We’ll either do a refund immediately, credit their account, or just hold it until we had a better idea and work with every family on that.

So we started working from home. Once we had an idea of what was going on, we were considered an essential service. If you recall, the governor said parks needed to remain open, local parks needed to. The State closed all of the state parks but all the local parks were required to stay open for people’s wellness and health and wellbeing. We were considered an essential service so we can come and go to work as frequently as we needed to. We were able to set up through our phone system to have our employees work from home, to stay safe. Those who wanted to come in or needed to come in, could come in, and we kept our parks open. Our whole park maintenance crew stayed on duty and had to go through all the protocols. We were trying to get out there to post signage that equipment was closed and trying to keep up with that and trying to keep it sanitized at the same time. Cause you knew people were gonna use it either way. So we just wanted to be as responsible on that as we could.

The administration and the recreation staff worked from home and our board at the time recognized the importance (of that). We were talking about people’s livelihoods. For everything backdated to the day we closed, March 17th up until I think it was the end of May, They said that we would be paid. So all of our staff would stay on the payroll. Nobody had to apply for any kind of government assistance, any kind of unemployment. So we were able to keep that down to a minimum as well. And it really worked well. I mean this board has got some great Foresight in areas like that. We’ve got a lot of expertise. We have a board member who’s in the field and works as a recreation superintendent at another district. We’ve got two others who have a financial background. We’ve got another one who’s attached to the community and is a high school coach so they really come together and work well and they complement each other on their strengths and weaknesses. It’s fun to watch.

Not that they have any weaknesses. (Laughs)

Financial

JT: So coming through COVID how was your funding situation? How was your cash flow situation? I’ve never looked at your balance sheet. I don’t know how much funding you get from the county versus how much you get from programs.

MH: We get 1% of the Rio Linda and Elverta zip codes property tax. Which is typical for any special district, any public agency. If you’re not an enterprise, in enterprises you have your own rate structure such as a water district, they charge (for their product) right? We only charge for programming. So our day-to-day operations are all done through property tax. Our balance sheet right now is $1.8 million, which means we would be solvent if we were to close everything down today we would be able to continue our day-to-day operations and our salary through 24 months.

The Depot Building, At Depot Park in Downtown Rio Linda. The project was completed in 2003 on the site of the original Sacramento Northern Railroad depot.

Now some of that is tied up in different funds such as new projects new expansion things like that. So it can only be used for that, building parks, like we’re doing a project over at Westside park that we’ve started, to bring in a new gazebo and a new restroom in there. Some family-friendly areas in that dead spot between the parking lot and the side of the baseball field. Right before the dog park, and that’s all coming outta some of these funds. So it’s money that’s gotta be used specifically for projects like that. So at that time, we were solvent of about 1.2 million a year. We didn’t do a lot of overspending when the economy was really driving high and we were basically able to save at that time so that we knew when the rainy day came, when the economy starts to run a little bit lower, we can do our spending then, and we can still stay within our grasp.

During COVID there were funds promised by various different government agencies, the county, the feds, the state as well as FEMA, which would be federal… we are expected to receive some of the American Cares Act dollars from the county. We haven’t seen it yet. We’ve heard rumors that we should be seeing something before the end of this fiscal year. It just hasn’t been announced. The State of California reached out and put aside a hundred million dollars for special districts throughout the entire state and released those funds in December. So we did our application for that in October and received $104,000 from the State of California. Now that all comes along with the State of California audit. So we’re well prepared for that.

We haven’t had a bad audit and all of our audits are up on the website, at least the last three years’ worth are up on our website. We haven’t had a negative audit… I don’t think ever. So the park district has always been responsible, fiscally.

JT: So what kind of things did you have to adjust to and how long were you locked down? I think you said earlier you guys were closed down through may March, April, May…

MH: Of 2020, right.

JT: …and then had to ease into life again, as everybody else did, starting in May and coming up to now.

Coming out of COVID

MH: So with the whole COVID thing it was more of keeping people away… and keeping people safe. What was more interesting is all of a sudden the protocols that we had to put in place. Like we were running the pool, we had swim team going, we had swim lessons going. So everybody had to do a forehead scan before coming into the pool. They had to answer the questionnaire that everybody became familiar with. That became part of COVID. Yeah, because you were in the water. The most interesting question we had is do you have the mask on in water and, (laughs) that’s not safe. So we got a lot of that because some of our classes were parent and child in the water together. So you know, the parents were like do we really want to do this? We’re wearing a mask.

And what was really good about this community as well… people don’t like the masks, but nobody really questioned it. Like everybody, came together on this and it was more of a, “we’re all gonna agree” moment similar to what happened shortly after 9/11, everybody just became friendlier. They can become more tolerant. And we noticed a lot of that within this community where, you know, we’re gonna weather this storm. We don’t like it, but we’re gonna weather it together and we’re gonna get through it together. And we saw a lot of that.

We were finally able to do our first event for Valentine’s day in 2021. And we did a parking lot social rather than our daddy-daughter dance and while it wasn’t as well attended as it could have been because it was during the day and it wasn’t what was originally gonna be offered, We were able to do it.

And then we were off! We did a Christmas event that year as well. We did cookies with Santa in 2021 and 2020 We did it remotely. And we were using a Santa shovel to get cookies there and have them give their letters to Santa that we could return. So that’s awesome. It worked well. And that actually happened to be on the same day as the Christmas light parade as well. So we went early and then we joined in on the Christmas Light parade where we were driving up and down all the streets and WOW. That was a long parade that year. (laughs). But it worked, I mean another sign of this community coming together. I remember seeing everybody in their front yards supporting it. I remember driving by your place at the time and watching you on Facebook Live on that.

So yeah, COVID… it really hurt the community and it hurt the world globally but we feel lucky. We received some funding for it. We’re expecting some more. We can only use it for certain things, so we’re gonna be using it to backfill where we lost out on general maintenance and things like that. But we did our best, our staff did a great job trying to keep the parks open and safe, and in good shape.

Thunder in Depot Park, a classic car show that takes place annually on Memorial Day weekend.

No Layoffs

JT: So for two years, during the two years of COVID you didn’t lose any administrative staff, you didn’t lose any maintenance staff and everybody just kind of came through it?

MH: No layoffs. We had some who took some personal time on their own but we did not lay anybody off. We did not lose any staff at all, and the whole maintenance staff came through. They were the troopers on our staff all the way through. They did not complain. They knew what they were getting themselves into whether it was perceived or real harm’s way every single day because they had to be out there.

You know, unfortunately, we have a rather large homeless community in the area, within our zip code and our maintenance staff works alongside our homeless every single day. At one time we knew all of them and they would help us, not with our jobs, but with info like “Hey, we know who was in your park last night.” or “We know who did that.” and they would help us. We have no clue who they are today. Our staff still worked knowing that they had to clean up those messes and work through that challenge as well, which was even more magnified during COVID.

Homeless

JT: So was that situation on Elkhorn Boulevard where they shuffled people across the street so disruptive that it changed the people who your maintenance staff knew?

MH: Yeah. Our maintenance staff knew. There was a handful of people that would come into town and hang out during the day, or be over at the Central Park horse arena during the day, that we knew and they would work with our staff. They weren’t doing drugs in front of us, maybe they were drinking in front of our staff. But you know, you mind your P’s and Q’s. We’re gonna work around you, but Hey, did you see who broke into that Conex? You know, tell us. Cause we will handle it and you’re not gonna get in trouble. But the group that is now at Elkhorn and Sixth, we don’t know who they are. We assume that the majority of them came out of ground zero, but it’s getting bigger.

JT: I know you doing a lot of maintenance on the park land, I didn’t know if you do any maintenance at ground zero for the county at all.

MH: No, we do some cleanup for the county. So we do have a large SAFCA contract, which is the Sacramento area flood control (agency). So we have a large number of sites. We didn’t do the mowing in ground zero cause they actually brought in goats for that. Which is what’s caused the current challenge that we’re experiencing. We would do illegal dumping and cleanup surrounding it. So we knew what was going on there, we just didn’t have any jurisdiction there. We don’t have any jurisdiction at Elkhorn and Sixth, or we would try to handle it in other ways. Everyone went to the Sue Frost meeting a few weeks ago, and it’s just going to take time.

JT: That meeting was frustrating because it was a lot more of the same.

MH: Yeah. For everyone. We watched that one woman storm out after 45 minutes, and she’s not wrong. It’s a lot of hurry up and wait.

JT: Very frustrating. We’ve covered a lot of ground here; is there anything else we should talk about?

MH: Well, we’re in an election year, so we’ve got three incumbents that may or may not be filing in August. I’m pretty sure that they will be, but it’s a good time to get involved in the District.

The Difficulties of Special Districts

JT: I think it says a lot that you hear so little about the Parks and Rec operations, the board, and the management, versus what we’ve heard for years with the water district. The RLECWD board was dysfunctional for so long that now they can’t shake that reputation, even if they are doing a dynamite job now.

MH: It would be tough to shake that, and they keep on hitting the news and it’s not their fault. We’re in a drought, water rates are gonna go up when you’re in a drought because the State wants people to stop using the water. So they get the ugly stepbrother or the redheaded stepchild feeling, and we go along silently doing our own thing. How many places do you go as a taxpayer where you’re okay turning money over to the government agency? Yeah. You’re okay turning money over to parks and recreation because you know your child’s gonna be taken care of for camp… You know that you can get into a dance class… You know that you can take the family swimming one day and you don’t mind using your extra dollars for that because it’s for the betterment of your health and your family. That’s what parks and recreation does. That’s why you don’t hear a lot from our board and our management because we’re here for the community, and we enjoy working with the community and we don’t wanna make waves. The water district, they don’t have that option. They’re supplying a service that is vital to the community and they are hamstrung when we don’t have water, they’re gonna have to raise your rates. And it’s not their fault. And everybody’s looking for somebody to blame and unfortunately, they’re blaming the messenger.

JT: I remember when I was a kid, let’s see… middle of June, we get outta school, and a week later you’re back in the recreation program, back in the multipurpose room of the school that you were going to all year and you’re there four days a week making something with Popsicle sticks and, and paste.

MH: And having fun. And you didn’t know you were learning.

JT: And all you knew is that you were going to Recreation and mom got you out of the house.

MH: I remember my mother was our camp nurse for one year. And one of my earliest childhood memories was watching her. We had the 15 passenger vans and this poor woman drove a Toyota Corolla and she’s like, “I can drive your bus”. And she drove the bus around the parking lot and we’re all watching. And then she got out of the bus and she fell into a heap because she was four feet off the ground and didn’t realize it. We were tiny people back then, and those are some of the best recollections of riding our bikes around the neighborhood, going to the community park, and shooting hoops. I grew up in Canada, so we were playing street hockey. All we’re trying to do now is as a park district have those amenities ready. We have a skate park it’s used, it’s not well used, but it’s used. We have the horse arena and it was pointed out the other night right before the master plan meeting… it’s the only free publicly run horse arena in Northern Sacramento county. There are others and there are plenty in Yolo and some over in Placer, but they’re all profit. We are not. That’s a sense of pride for the people in this community.

Some of the fresh local produce available every Thursday night during the summer at the Rio Linda Farmers Market and Peddlers Faire in Depot Park.

Rodeos and Demolition Derbies

JT: Do you get requests for a lot of events at the rodeo grounds?

MH: There are community groups who are working to get back in there, but we haven’t had the rodeos that we used to have years ago. Part of that is the organized events just haven’t been there. Or we just haven’t had the right volunteers in place to get their community groups going. Every once in a while we’ll get a call or we’ll get a booking for something like that. We had one scheduled for last fall. The lions are starting to put something back on again. And it got weathered away. That was October when we had the storm when we just got plowed with five inches of rain and flash flooding.

JT: One of the things I get the most requests for is why don’t we have the Lions rodeo out there anymore? Why don’t we have the demolition Derby out there anymore?

MH: At one point we had a demolition Derby scheduled and it got canceled. Then the Lions came in and said they wanna run the Derby again. We’re a little conscious of the Derby. We’re not saying no. I think the community would Lynch us if we said no. But the thing is that cars back in the seventies and eighties when they were running these Derbys and even in the nineties, the cars they were using were older vehicles and they were metal. You can get a metal detector out there and you can pick everything up and you weren’t gonna be worried about harming a horse. Today’s cars and the vehicles are using now are plastic. So we’d have problems picking things up with a metal detector. We have to make sure that all the plastic shielding and the windshields and all that is off so that we’re gonna avoid damage to the other arena users as possible. More so today we have an environmental impact, if we suddenly have a car blow their radiator or blow their transmission, we’ve got fluids leaching into the ground and we are within 100-200 feet of that creek.

JT: It’s one of those things that, at least for California, that time has passed by. I see them happening in the Midwest all the time, but in the Midwest, you’ve got miles and miles and miles of just dirt. And they do it in somebody’s backyard because they’ve got 150 acres in their backyard. To do this here in Rio Linda, you have to move a lot of dirt.

MH: We have to get dirt in there. We’ve gotta make sure that we can get the dirt out of there with the contaminants in it. I mean, it’s doable, but with the regulatory agencies, it’s a rather big pain for the organizing group. That was one of the conversations we had with both the Lions and with Tina Geer, when they were planning, is how are we doing this? We need to set up an environmental plan. It’s the whole world right now, but it’s tough living in California with all the regulations.


And that’s where Mike and I were interrupted by phone calls and text messages, as often happens now in life. I want to thank Mike for sitting down with me for an hour or so. I enjoyed getting the information straight from the GM at the Rio Linda Elverta Recreation and Parks District.

For more about the Rio Linda Elverta Recreation and Parks District and the Programs they provide, please visit https://www.rleparks.com/ or visit the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/rleparks

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