Momentum Builds for Parks Budget Increases

Thursday, May 01, 2014

New York City Council Parks & Recreation Committee Chairman Mark Levine has left no doubt that the Council is serious about addressing park equity issues.
Last Thursday, following a hearing on park equity and months of discussion on the topic, Levine announced the Council’s request to City Hall: a $27 million increase of the Parks Department’s maintenance and operations budget.
The time is ripe to take on the equity issue. After all, we have a new administration that talks often, and passionately, about improving the quality of life for all New Yorkers, and especially at a neighborhood level. And as we wrote recently in the Gotham Gazette – and as Council Member Levine noted in his opening statement at last week’s hearing – park issues are, at their core, neighborhood issues. Now is the time to aim high and think big.

That's exactly what the Council is doing. Specifically, the requested amount would provide:
·         $17.5 million for 50 new full-time workers and 25 new full-time gardeners
·         $10 million for 150 new Parks Enforcement Patrol officers

The request takes aim at some the most pressing issues DPR faces. As we noted at the hearing, addressing inequities on the maintenance side should begin through the creation of a new fund for parks most in need (an idea Levine endorsed in his opening statement). First and foremost, that fund should add more full-time workers to a Parks Department whose maintenance staff is 75 percent temporary. Such a jobs program would start to move DPR away from its reliance on roving work crews and really begin to restore some accountability on the ground. In his opening statement, Council Member Levine added some historical perspective:

Even with a small bump-up in the past year, the department’s full-time current headcount of 3,762 is down over 20% since 1987 and down over 37% since 1961 when full-time staff numbered 6,015.  Today New York City’s Parks Department has less than 6 full-time equivalent employees per 10,000 city residents, ranking it 41st out of the 52 largest urban park systems in America, according to a recent analysis by the Trust for Public Land.

At the same time, Levine noted, the ranks of the Park Enforcement Patrol “have been so thinned out that there are only 28 assigned to the 6,000 acres of park land in the Bronx – and as little as 2 on duty on some shifts for the entire borough.” While it’s not their job to combat serious crimes, PEP officers play an important role in enforcing Parks Department rules and addressing quality of life issues in parks.

Our proposed pot of expense funding would provide incoming Commissioner Mitchell Silver, who arrives at the Arsenal May 12, with a tool to start strategically directing resources toward high-need areas with a clear goal: deliver quick, tangible results for park users.

The $27 million request offers Mayor de Blasio an opportunity to start doing just that.
It’s also essential, as we have repeatedly noted over the past year, that Commissioner Silver be granted a similar level of discretion on capital spending. Relying on piecemeal discretionary allocations from Council members and borough presidents for the majority of projects, which has been the case for the better part of two decades, inevitability leads to results that don’t address the areas of highest priority.
Fortunately, there is momentum on that front, too: the FY15 preliminary budget includes a large infusion of capital money to be spent at the discretion of Commissioner Silver, including roughly $80 million earmarked for “neighborhood parks.” This is a critical step in the right direction. We’re also encouraged to see that the Council is supporting a Parks Department request for much-needed capital division staff – 55 new positions – to help DPR both clear its capital backlog caused by Sandy recovery projects and to more efficiently take on the new neighborhood parks projects.

The private sector also has a part to play in helping the City, but that role must be secondary and only in place to augment a more robust, focused public-sector effort. Still, the city’s larger conservancies – several testified at the hearing, including the Central Park Conservancy, Prospect Park Alliance and Friends of the High Line – understand their role in helping lift the system as a whole and are eager to work with both the Council and Commissioner Silver on creating a sustainable, effective plan to do that.

This is, of course, just the start of the equity conversation – really, the wheels won’t start churning until Commissioner Silver starts work. But the Council, particularly Levine and the Parks Committee, are to be commended for their ambitious push toward a more equitable park system.

We were glad to see Mayor de Blasio’s chief spokesperson acknowledge last week in The Wall Street Journal that “we can’t have parks that are so underfunded.” Now, as City Hall weighs the Council’s request and prepares its executive budget, we’re hopeful it will work with the Council to provide Commissioner Silver with the best possible welcome gift to New York City: a reinvigorated Parks budget.

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