By James Barron
March 13, 2023
How much for parks?
That was the subtext of a conversation with Adam Ganser, whose answer puts him at odds with Mayor Eric Adams, and it was hardly surprising. Ganser is the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, a nonprofit that has championed them for more than 100 years. The mayor has proposed cutting the budget for the Department of Parks and Recreation for the 2024 fiscal year by about $46 million, compared with fiscal 2023. (City Hall disputes that, saying the mayor’s budget proposal left funding for the Parks Department untouched.)
Ganser argued for an increase, and a big one — about $346 million. He said that would allocate roughly $1 billion to the Department of Parks and Recreation, or about 1 percent of the annual municipal budget. “We’re talking about a rounding error in the city budget,” he said.
Ganser mentioned that as a candidate and as a newly elected mayor, Adams said he supported 1 percent for parks, and a Parks Department spokeswoman said that “we are committed to working toward the goal of 1 percent for parks.” So did a City Hall spokeswoman, who said that Adams’s administration had “made significant investments to improve our parks and keep them safe.”
But New Yorkers for Parks is so concerned that the parks budget could be vulnerable that it is releasing a 43-page document titled the “1 Percent for Parks Impact Report.”
It details the benefits of increased funding for parks, including hiring enough maintenance workers to keep the lawns and trees looking their best, and the trash bins from overflowing. The report also says that more money would make parks feel safer, because the Parks Department could hire more Parks Enforcement Patrol officers. With only about 180 on duty on any given day, they are “too thinly deployed” to respond to problems in parks, the report says.
The report says the Parks Department “has done the best it can with available resources.” But “constrained staffing of maintenance workers” means that parks may not be clean during visitation spikes. Or they may lack functioning playground equipment, in part because of $590 million in deferred maintenance.
Ganser is not only fighting budget-cutting, he is also fighting confusion over nonprofits like the Central Park Conservancy, Friends of the High Line and the Prospect Park Alliance that raise contributions from donors. “People who live in New York will go to Central Park and the High Line and say ‘Look at how the city cares for its parks,’” Ganser said. “That’s not a negative on the conservancies, it’s a call out to the city that you’re not living up to your end of the bargain” for the nearly 1,700 other parks.
For them, Ganser said, things could easily slide the wrong way. When the parks agency’s budget was cut by $84 million during the pandemic-hobbled 2021 fiscal year, there was a 120 percent increase in garbage complaints, according to HR&A Advisors, the consulting firm that analyzed budget data for the 1 percent report. (Adams’s spokeswoman said Parks has “a full-funded seasonal hiring plan” with the money to hire more than 3,600 part-time workers for the warm-weather months, and the Parks Department said it also had more full-time employees who will make it possible “to extend our cleaning schedule into the evening.”)
Ganser said the Parks Department staff was cut even when it appeared to be growing last year. He said that City Hall had trumpeted the hiring of 715 permanent employees for the department but that another 510 positions were quietly eliminated, “so there was a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul shell game where they didn’t talk about the job losses.” (Adams’s spokeswoman said the head count for maintenance and operations workers at the Parks Department has risen by more than 300 since he took office)
The parks budget is rooted in what Ganser called the “generational disinvestment” that followed the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. HR&A calculated that the city budget has increased 127 percent since 1980. Agency by agency, the Department of Corrections has jumped 165 percent since then, the Department of Sanitation 148 percent and the Police Department 127 percent.
But the comparable figure for the Parks Department is only 72 percent, according to the HR&A analysis.
The Parks Department in New York receives a significantly smaller share of the city budget than the agencies that oversee parks in other cities. San Francisco spends 1.6 percent of its municipal budget on parks, Los Angeles spends 2.9 percent, Chicago 4.3 percent and Minneapolis 5.3 percent. New York has more parkland to maintain: the 16,000 acres in Los Angeles are a bit more than half of the total in New York.
City Council member Shekar Krishnan, a Democrat from Queens who is the chairman of the parks and recreation committee, said he was proud to have pushed for the largest parks budget in the city’s history last year. “That was only the first step,” he said. “We should have 1 percent in our budget yesterday.”