By JOAN McCoy
Leader staff writer
Three years ago, Cabot parks were in trouble. The new community center was a drain on the budget that no one had anticipated; a parks’ bookkeeper was caught embezzling, and employees’ income tax was being withheld but not paid.
Cabot parks are run by an autonomous commission, but the city stepped in and helped pay parks’ debts; the director resigned, and Larry Tarrant, who had been the parks program director, was hired to take his place.
Sitting in his office at the community center last week, Tarrant talked about his tight operating budget, the changes he has made, where he got the ideas for the changes that are helping to pay the bills and the changes he would like to see within the next 10 years.
Tarrant estimated parks’ income for 2010 at $1,425,140 and expenditures at $1,409,930. If his numbers are correct, he’ll start 2011 with $15,210.
“That’s tight,” he said.
A number-covered dry-erase marker board beside his desk shows how he’s doing. He also has a detailed budget on a computer spreadsheet program but Tarrant says he likes having it on the board because he can see at a glance where he is and where he’s going.
“My main goal was to bring finances into line and we have done that,” he said.
And by “we” he means himself and the park employees.
“I’ve tried to build a team,” he said. “I keep them informed about everything. When I tell them to cut back, they know why.”
Because the money was so tight, Tarrant worked two jobs his first year as parks director. He didn’t fill his old job of program director until the second year. Now Joe Ferguson is in that position and several money-making programs have been started such as adult basketball, adult flag football and coed volleyball. Parks are now holding more summer baseball tournaments which bring in money to help operate the parks as well as business for the city’s restaurants and motels.
Tarrant also sells advertising space around the walking track at the community center. That brings in about $10,000 a year, perhaps not a large sum but it’s $10,000 parks didn’t have before. The ideas for increasing revenue by adding programs and selling advertising came from places like Rogers, Springdale and Paragould, Tarrant said. He went to see for himself what other park departments were doing and starting doing some of those things that work in Cabot.
How the financial situation became so dire that the parks commission had to ask the city council to bail them out is really not clear, Tarrant said. He had no dealings with the finances back then. What is clear now, he said, is that he is so much into the business of every park employee that he is almost certain he is an irritant to them.
At 44, he’s known as a person with a high energy level, but he said if he had been born later, he almost certainly would have been on medicine for attention- deficit disorder.
Tarrant’s first official involvement with Cabot parks was as a member of the city’ Advertising and promotion commission which is responsible for the 2.5 percent tax collected on motel rooms and prepared food. The food tax built the city soccer complex and the combined tax continues to pay for park construction.
At that time, Tarrant owned the Tastee Freeze. Before that he was a manager for Total Petroleum with a $20 million budget and 200 employees.
“I’ve worked with budgets and managed people most of my life,” he said.
Before Total Petroleum, he was a college kid who volunteered at the Boys Club in West Memphis. He had always played sports, but at the Boys Club, he learned the importance of providing programs for young people.
“I always knew this is what I wanted to do,” Tarrant said. “It just took a few years to get here.”
Tarrant says he is grateful to the A&P Commission which is paying for all but $28,000 of the $100,000 project under way right now at the city pond at the corner of Campground and Kerr. When the weather is nice, there is always someone fishing there, he said. But within two weeks, the seven-acre park will also have a walking track with timber bridges over the pond’s intake and outlet.
“A&P has funded so much for me in the past three years that it’s amazing,” he said, projects like defibrillators, paving the parking lot at the Richie Road ball fields, and lights and a new concession stand at the soccer complex.
Tarrant said he is also grateful for parks’ partnership with Cabot School District. Peewee basketball games are held at school gyms and the school uses the swimming pool at the community center for its swimming program. Additionally, parks has a swimming program for young children that is a feeder for the high school program.
Thanks in part to those partnerships, the parks department is in the black. But Tarrant says Cabot needs to add more attractions if the parks department is ever to stand on its own, attractions like a nine-field baseball complex, a water park like the one at Jacksonville and a weight room and banquet room for the community center.
Those projects are all part of the 10-year plan that for now has no funding source. But Tarrant is convinced they will happen.
“They’re what Cabot needs,” he said.