NY4P in City Limits: ​Parks Dept. Signals Funding Freeze to Nonprofits
From City Limits: "The playground at Athens Square Park bore a sign asking visitors to exercise alone." Photo by Jeanmarie Evelly.
From City Limits: "The playground at Athens Square Park bore a sign asking visitors to exercise alone." Photo by Jeanmarie Evelly.

Parks Dept. Signals Funding Freeze to Nonprofits

Friday, April 3, 9:22 a.m.

Nonprofit organizations that run public programs and perform key maintenance work in city parkland are concerned that the de Blasio administration is abruptly cutting off funding amid the budget crunch triggered by the coronavirus crisis.

“We are living in unprecedented times as the city grapples to lower ‘the curve’ during this COVID-19 event and keep New Yorkers safe,” Brett Meaney, the Parks Department’s director of contracts, wrote to his agency’s nonprofit partners last Friday. “Because of fiscal and other uncertainties in the coming months, Parks is advising nonprofits to cease any future spending on your Fiscal Year 2020 discretionary awards as those expenses may not be reimbursable.”

Leaders at two of those nonprofits say the directive could force organizations to lay off staff—especially since the money Meaney refers to might have been spent already. Organizations tend to spend their city money early in the fiscal year so they can file on time the required year-end reports accounting for the cash. In order to deliver promised services, nonprofits might even have to spend money before a city contract comes in, because of pervasive delays in the contracting process.

With only three months left in the current fiscal year, it is unlikely that many nonprofits actually have much spending they could forego, the leaders said.

Among the organizations that received discretionary funding from City Councilmembers in the budget passed last June were Fort Greene Park Conservancy, Bronx River Alliance, Brooklyn Alliance of Neighborhood Gardens Land Trust, Gowanus Conservancy, City Parks Foundation, Forest Park Trust and Friends of Crotona Park and Greenbelt Conservancy among others.

The organizations typically combine city funding with private donations and foundation grants, and some garner state and federal support. The city discretionary money might not be a major revenue source, but it can be an important part of particular employees’ salaries.

“We are deeply troubled to hear that parks conservancies and parks partner organizations are being told by the city to freeze spending and not use the remaining discretionary funding that they were allocated in the city’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget,” says Emily Walker, director of outreach & programs at New Yorkers for Parks. “New Yorkers across the city are seeking refuge in their parks as we grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is not the time to treat them as something we can do without.”

The Parks Department did not provide comment.

Sources tell City Limits the department has also frozen any non-COVID-related purchasing, which could indicate concerns about cash flow.

The focus of concern now is the remainder of the current fiscal year. There’s also ample angst, however, about what Fiscal 2021 will look like. Many parks nonprofits hire seasonal staff whose tenures straddle the end of one fiscal year and the beginning of the next one.

“People are pretty sick thinking about what that agency is going to look like,” one nonprofit leader says.

The cuts could imperil an expansion of the Parks Department’s own staffing that advocates won after years of efforts to get deeper and more equitable funding for the agency, which maintains a huge portion of the city’s footprint with a relatively small headcount. According to data from the Independent Budget Office, the Parks Department had 4,019 full-time positions last year, fewer than the Administration for Children’s Services, Department of Environmental Protection or CUNY.

Walker says 340 frontline Parks staff positions are set to expire on July 1. “These positions were created last year because of the efforts of New Yorkers for Parks and the Play Fair Coalition, and they do the essential work of keeping parks safe and well-maintained.” Their work might be even more important this summer, she says, as parks could see record attendance once social distancing is relaxed.

“Once it is finally safe to be together in large groups again, New York City parks are going to be more in-demand than ever,” Walker says. “The city needs to ensure that conservancies and parks partner organizations have the resources that they were promised, for the good of all New Yorkers.”

Read the full article in City Limits by scrolling down to April 3