On March 27, the City Council’s Parks Committee held its annual preliminary budget hearing, and NY4P Executive Director Tupper Thomas was there to offer both testimony about specific budgetary needs this fiscal year, but also to begin to address some of the more overreaching equity issues facing the park system.
The hearing arrived on the heels of Mayor de Blasio’s introduction of Mitchell Silver as New York City’s next Parks Commissioner. The announcement, held in Seward Park, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was an inspiring day for park advocates across the city. Both the mayor and incoming commissioner offered thoughtful, even-handed commentary centered on a clear goal: a fairer park system for all New Yorkers.
We are pleased to see that the mayor’s preliminary budget for Parks not only baselines many of the important restorations made over the past few years, such as street-tree care and stump removal, but funds items up front that are usually subject to the annual budget dance, such as Playground Associates and seasonal workers.
This good news gives us the opportunity to turn our attention to the larger issue of addressing inequities across the park system. The solution is complex and nuanced. While many of the large park conservancies are ready to work with the commissioner on bringing more private resources – financial and otherwise – to parks in need, it’s clear, as Parks Committee Chairman Mark Levine noted recently in the Huffington Post, that addressing inequities must begin with the public budget. There are several specific budget and policy reforms that the administration and Parks Department can undertake in the name of equity and fairness.
On the expense side, this will require addressing the top concern of many local park advocates across the city: there simply isn’t enough full-time staff assigned to the parks that need them most. Rather, 75 percent of the Department’s maintenance staff is made up of Job Training Participants who work at the Department up to six months but are almost never given an opportunity for permanent employment once their training is complete. “Almost as soon as they’re really up to speed on the park, they cycle out,” a local advocate told us recently. Her comment rings true across the city. At the same time, many advocates tell us that having full-time staff – a familiar face in the park – goes a long way toward improving the overall park experience for users. These issues offer Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Silver an opportunity to both address park equity issues and create good jobs.
What would those jobs be, where would they make the most immediate impact, and how much money is needed to create them? Here are some great ways to get started in the highest-use, highest-need neighborhood parks:
· $2 million for 50 full-time workers to staff playgrounds with comfort stations.
· $1.5 million for 25 skilled full-time gardeners to help maintain midsized neighborhood parks. Our organization learned first-hand how important these positions are when we helped lead the Neighborhood Parks Initiative almost 10 years ago.
Not only would these new positions start making a difference for parks most in need right away, but they’d offer an opportunity for the Department’s part-time workers to gain full-time employment through a new, robust training program to help transition JTP staff into full-time maintenance workers and gardeners.
· Additionally, though the Parks Department has shortened its street-tree pruning cycle thanks to recent budget restorations, DPR still prunes very few trees park trees. $2 million would allow the Department to at least prune about 25,000 trees in parks: a good start toward a pruning cycle.
These are possible suggestions for a better operating budget. If the Council could establish a neighborhood parks fund of $5-6 million, Commissioner Silver could work with the Council on a plan that really addresses needs in underserved parks.
There is also an opportunity to address inequities through the capital budget. In recent years, the Parks Department has not had a meaningful discretionary budget to really enable it to plan for and fund capital projects over time across parks citywide. Rather, the DPR has been reliant for funding for the majority of its projects on piecemeal discretionary allocations from City Council Members and Borough Presidents. Cobbling together allocations over multiple fiscal years from different elected officials is inefficient, leads to inequitable results, and often means the nuts-and-bolts needs of parks across the city fall through the cracks.
We are pleased to see that our call for increased discretionary capital funding, as highlighted in our Parks Platform 2013 and elsewhere, seems to have been heard: the FY 15 budget contains a significant amount of capital funding, and it appears to be at the discretion of Commissioner Silver. We call on the Council and administration to ensure that this funding remains in the budget.
The introduction of Mitchell Silver as Parks Commissioner ushered in a new era for New York City’s parks. We’re eager to work with Commissioner Silver and the leading conservancies on ways to bring more private money into high-need parks throughout the city, but we’re also hopeful that the Parks Department will now turn its primary focus to large-scale budget and policy reforms aimed at addressing inequity – and, in turn, lifting the park system as a whole.