By Caroline Spivack
March 23, 2023
For the second year in a row, the Adams administration’s budget for the Department of Parks and Recreation fails to live up to a 1% budget commitment the mayor made when he was campaigning for the job.
The city agreed to a $624 million budget for the city's parks in fiscal year 2023—the largest in the city’s history. That followed a $618 million budget for the department in fiscal year 2022 under the de Blasio administration, which was also record-setting. But those increases, which funded sorely-needed staff for the city’s parks, are still well short of the $1 billion, or 1% of the city’s overall budget, that the mayor said he supported as a candidate.
A “1 Percent for Parks Impact Report” by the nonprofit advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks described a “parks agency that scrapes by to do standard maintenance like cleaning up trash, mowing lawns, cleaning bathrooms, and taking care of the urban forest; unable to provide staff to keep our parks safe, let alone engage with parks visitors; a system that is overwhelmed on peak visitation days in the summer.”
Elected officials and parks advocates fear that a slimmed-down budget for fiscal year 2024 will threaten recent spending progress. This year the parks department’s preliminary expense budget is $582.7 million—$46 million less than last year. That is a worrying decrease that could only make it harder to care for the city’s green spaces, said City Council member Shekar Krishnan, who represents Queens and chairs the council’s parks committee.
“We are facing a preliminary budget that walks back the gains that we have made,” Krishnan said at a Wednesday budget hearing. “Budget cuts and high vacancy rates contribute to a department that is unable to meet many basic functions. It is just as simple as that.”
Parks workers say a lack of staff and equipment means they often find themselves struggling to keep green spaces clean with the resources they have.
“There’s just not enough,” Dilcy Benn, president of Local 1505, which represents roughly 1,000 city parks workers, told Crain’s. “There’s not enough people. There’s not enough equipment. It’s just chaos when it comes to my people; they’re overworked.”
The Adams administration disputes the budget cuts, saying the mayor’s preliminary budget has not slashed funding for the parks department. A spokesperson for City Hall noted that the budget process is ongoing and that the preliminary budget for the department last year was significantly less than what was ultimately allocated.
“We are committed to working towards the goal of 1% for parks, which must be done wisely and efficiently to ensure every New Yorker can take advantage of our unmatched public green spaces,” mayoral spokesperson Kate Smart said in a statement.
At the council’s budget hearing, parks commissioner Sue Donoghue noted that the department has seen a net gain of more than 300 staffers under the Adams administration, and is currently bringing on 3,600 seasonal workers to boost its 4,500-person staff for the warmer months. Earlier this week, the agency announced it is deploying 240 so-called second shift workers to address cleanliness in the city’s parks during peak days and hours, typically during evenings and weekends, at what the agency calls “hotspot” sites in 62 parks across the city.
But recent belt-tightening measures, Donoghue said, have cut more than 200 vacant positions at the department.
“We all understood that there was a need to address fiscal uncertainty,” Donoghue said, noting that her office has ongoing talks with the mayor’s office. “But we feel strongly that with the team we have in place that we will still be able to fulfill our mission.”
In February the agency’s vacancy rate spiked to approximately 17%—Donoghue says that number was a “snapshot in time” and has since dipped to 2% now that seasonal hiring is underway. Regardless, lawmakers found the figure alarming.
“I am very concerned about [the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget] trying to realize savings by failing to hire,” said council member Lincoln Restler, who represents part of Brooklyn. “And we cannot afford to save money on the backs of our parks and failing to provide services and hire the staff that we need to improve the conditions in our parks.”
Gythaim Martinez says she’s part of a team of 11 permanent parks workers on Randall's Island who do everything from picking up litter to weed-whacking to keeping bathrooms clean—tasks that are vital to maintaining parks as vibrant spaces where New Yorkers and tourists feel comfortable.
But a small team often means tasks pile up, she said.
“When the seasonal staff comes we get help, but all year round we definitely need more workers,” she said. “There’s not always enough of us to go around.”
Yvette Espada, who has been a city parks worker for 25 years and currently tends to Willowbrook Park in Staten Island, says she is in dire need of a new parks vehicle.
There are three vehicles for a team of 15 staffers, Espada said. Because the vehicles are in high demand, she typically drives through the park in a four-door sedan owned by a neighboring park conservancy. But the car isn’t big enough for the large equipment she needs for certain tasks, so she often has to wait on a coworker to transport the equipment. That takes away from other park tasks.
“It’s incredibly inefficient and frustrating,” said Espada. “We need trucks—we need what we need to do our jobs. I’ve been asking for a new vehicle for about eight years."
Comparatively, New York is way behind other cities on parks funding.
The city’s 30,000 acres of parkland receive 0.6% of the city’s budget for day-to-day operations. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago—all cities with significantly smaller parks footprints—allocate between 1.5% to 4.0% of their budgets to park operations and maintenance, according to New Yorkers for Parks.
“[This is about] decades of disinvestment, decades of New Yorkers getting less for their parks, decades of city parks workers getting less,” said Adam Ganser, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, which has led the push for 1% of the city’s budget for parks. “We’re looking for the mayor to stay true to his commitments.”