Support for Sumner’s community garden is shifting and it’s left volunteers questioning what role the city has in maintaining it, and what’s in store for the future.
Since it’s inception five years ago, Sumner has set aside $2,000 a year to support the organic, 7-acres of garden next door to the Sumner City Cemetery and behind Christ the King Lutheran Church. No additional funding for the garden is included in Sumner’s proposed two-year budget, prepared by the city administrator that council must approve by the end of this year.
In addition to the potential loss of city funding, community volunteers, city council members and Mayor Dave Enslow are no longer allowed to use city equipment used to maintain the land in past years.
“When we put the budget together, it was very tight to balance… and we’ve always hoped the garden would become self-supporting eventually,” said Mayor Dave Enslow at Monday’s meeting. “And, our city equipment is made to do city things. City maintenance is done by city staff and qualified people, so I don’t think the Mayor or council has any business handling city equipment. That’s why it’s off limits to council and mayor.”
While Enslow and city officials maintain that the changes are a matter of frugality and safety, Sumner councilman Randy Hynek, who spearheads the community garden project, says the changes are part of a “smear campaign” against him and it’s threatening one of Sumner’s best resources.
“Denying use of city equipment has significantly lowered our food supply,” said Hynek in an interview with Patch. “Cutting off funding and equipment means a slow death to the garden.”
Enslow admitted during Monday’s council meeting that the equipment protocol changes are due to the tree-cutting incident involving Hynek, who used a city-owned chain saw to cut down a swath of city-planted trees along the White River last year.
As a result, City Administrator John Galle informed the council they would no longer be allowed to use city equipment in a memo this August. He cited legal issues—allowing the garden or other groups to use city resources could be seen as gifting public property for private use. Safety hazards also have the potential for legal problems for Sumner, Galle’s memo said—only certified, insured employees should be allowed to operate heavy, city-owned machinery.
Hynek said the use of major farming equipment, like a dump truck or tractor, is critical to maintaining the organic land. He added there has never been a safety issue with city equipment and he has not been offered training.
“Not having access to city-owned equipment hurts us in time, labor and production,” Hynek said. “Because we’re an organic garden, we need dump trucks to bring in dirt, biomatter, leaves and other stuff for the soil in order for it to be healthy and organic. We don’t need to buy a dump truck of our own to make 20 loads a year and we can’t afford to rent a dump truck to use 20 times a year. It doesn’t cost the city anything to loan us the equipment when it isn’t being used for city business.”
Since losing access to the city’s resources, Hynek says that production at the garden has been down about 30 percent. Crops from the garden support the Sumner Food Bank. Since it’s inception five years ago, Hynek and community volunteers have donated over 100,000 pounds of food from the garden—including eggs and organic produce including corn, potatoes, squash and lettuce.
“We aren’t using all of the land this season because the equipment isn’t available to fill the need,” said Hynek. “It’s a lack of produce and increases time spent by the volunteers. We can’t weed like we used to and don’t have the tools to use all the land, using smaller pieces of equipment.”
Sumner councilmembers maintain that Hynek should have included a budget proposal for the garden if he expected city funding and should have presented it to the council for consideration, like every other city department.
“The expectation with the Sumner Community Garden has been that it would become a self-sustaining non-profit. That hasn’t happened,” said councilman Steve Allsop. “We don’t have anywhere else in the city where money is just handed out. There has to be a budget, with requests and documentation for needs, within bounds. We need to be good stewards of public funds.”
If the garden became a non-profit organization, it could be eligible for grant funding. Hynek and garden leaders don’t want to see garden operations under a non-profit banner because it would be forced to borrow city machinery as an independent group and could be held to a land lease with the city. The group would like to be included in the city’s parks department. Hynek told Patch he would like to see the education and fundraising component of the garden become a non-profit organization, eventually.
“If we get forced into becoming a non-profit, we’ll wither away,” said garden leader Ed Smith, a resident of rural Pierce County. “We feel like we’re being pushed out and we need to stay involved in the city and be part of it.”
During Monday’s meeting, Allsop stated that he and the other council members just want to take a step back and analyze the garden’s needs and firm up the city’s role in its future.
The garden sits on land owned by the Sumner Cemetery, which is an enterprise fund owned by the city. The city has a mutual understanding with garden volunteers that acreage would be given to the garden for the five-year pilot program.
As the garden reaches the end of that mutual understanding, however, the future is unclear. Galle pointed out in his budget presentation on Nov. 5 that the cemetery is losing money and should be reevaluated in the next few years. Without a long-term land promise, Smith told the council that volunteers are hesitant to plant blueberries and other produce that could take years to bring to fruition, or even invest in crops that will last more than a year.
Last week, Hynek submitted a budget amendment to include garden funding for the next two years and Smith prepared a garden presentation for the council at the Nov. 5 meeting, with a request to extend the mutual agreement for 25 years.
After over 30 minutes of heated debate, the city council voted against the presentation 5-2, citing city protocol.
“I don’t trust the content of this presentation, there has been a lot of mud-hurling and accusations made,” said Allsop.
Councilmember Nancy Dumas supported Hynek’s motion to bring the presentation to the regular council meeting and criticized her fellow council members for not allowing it when so many community members showed up in support.
“We’re squabbling over $2,000 because it’s personal against [Hynek], and that’s not OK,” said Dumas. “This has a residual effect on the people who use the gardens, students and our food banks. Families are working hard to farm in this city and we’re trying to screw that up? If it’s really about money, I believe we can find that $2,000 somewhere else in the budget.”
Enslow maintains that Sumner is committed to allowing the garden to grow.
“Everyone supports the garden,” he said. “We all want to see it prosper.”
The presentation on Sumner’s community garden has been moved to the next council study session, which is Tues., Nov. 13. The council will discuss the garden at that meeting and is expected to make a vote before the city’s final budget must be approved.
There is also a public meeting on the community garden program on Sat., Nov. 17 at 10 a.m. in council chambers.