Budget Cuts and the Parks

by Anne Schwartz, Nov 15, 2002

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent proposal to patch the enormous hole in the city's budget includes the inevitable budget cuts, as well as tax increases and new revenue sources like bridge tolls. The cuts will squeeze all city agencies, parks included. But unlike past eras of austerity, the pain seems to be distributed more evenly, an indication that this administration sees parks as an important factor in the city's quality of life. "Our sense of it is that the parks department has been treated like other agencies," Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said, "where in the past, the parks department was cut disproportionately, treated as if it were a non-vital service."

These new budget cuts, however, fall on a department whose funding has already been reduced to a minimum. According to the Independent Budget Office, money for maintaining and operating the parks and providing recreation programs was never fully restored from the cutbacks of the previous recession in the early 1990's. The parks department's share of the city budget has also declined, from .65 percent in 1991 to .52 percent in 2001. (It was .82 percent as recently as 1986.) "Parks have been cut in the good and bad times, drastically over the last 30 years," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, a parks advocacy group. "We would hope that City Hall and the mayor would consider exempting further cuts from parks because of this history."

How Would Parks Be Affected?

The mayor's proposed adjustments to the parks budget would require combined cuts and new revenues of $8.7 million for this fiscal year and $18.6 million for the next. The department would lose 157 fulltime workers through attrition and reduce the number of street trees pruned by a third this year and by half next. There would also be an increase in the fees charged for the use of ball fields, tennis courts, recreation centers, and parking at Yankee and Shea stadiums. Except for the yearly recreation center fees, which mostly go back to the centers to cover their expenses, the rest of the new revenue would go to the city's general fund and be used as an offset to cuts.

Commissioner Benepe said there will be some impacts - water fountains and sprinklers might take longer to get turned on in the summer because of fewer plumbers, supervisors will be managing more people, and playgrounds that formerly had attendants in the summer won't have them. But, he said, "we should be able to maintain the overall quality of parks; people should not see a diminution of safety and cleanliness."

The funding reductions will further erode a fulltime staff that has declined steeply over the last 30 years. The number of fulltime employees has dropped from more than 6,000 in 1970 to about 2,000 in 2001. This labor pool has been replaced by seasonal workers, as well as by participants in welfare-to-work programs, who are paid by the Department of Human Resources, using federal and state money. The welfare workers fill the parks department's need for large numbers of people to do unskilled work, like raking, cleaning, and painting. "The welfare-to-work program is at the core of how we deliver se rvices," Commissioner Benepe said. The parks department now has 4,000 welfare-to-work participants, although in recent years the number has dropped at times to around 2,000. The department trains the workers and helps place them in jobs outside the department.

What the parks department has not been able to replace with temporary and seasonal staff are the skilled workers needed to tend trees and plantings and to keep plumbing in working order. Decades of staffing cuts have left the department with very few gardeners, tree pruners, and plumbers. According to the IBO report, by 2001, the department had only 12 fulltime gardeners for the entire city, down from 30 in 1991. (Central Park alone, which is funded almost entirely through private donations, has 73 gardeners.) During that time, the number of tree pruners declined from 99 to 55, and the number of plumbers from 30 to 18. The staff reduction slated for this year and next would further deplete the department's skilled staff.

The Spector of the 1970s

In presenting his budget plan, Mayor Bloomberg stressed that the situation is not as bleak as the 1970s, when the city drastically cut services, stopped maintaining its infrastructure, and all but abandoned the parks. "This city is not going to cut its expenses below where the quality of life would start to deteriorate," he said.

Still, people are worried. "We're hearing from community groups that they're fearful that parks are going to return to the 70s when people were afraid to walk through dilapidated parks," said Christian DiPalermo. "We do think the commissioner is doing everything to avoid that in the way he manages the parks."

The parks are also in a different position than they were in the 1970s. Having come back from the abyss, in part because of partnerships with private groups like the Central Park Conservancy, the parks now have a vocal and committed constituency. The private sector contributes about $50 million a year for the maintenance and restoration of parks and facilities, and for programs, although the benefits have flowed mostly to parks in affluent areas. A network of 60,000 volunteers, with a core group of 5,000 to 10,000 people who work regularly, provides about $10 million in labor each year.

Although Commissioner Benepe is optimistic that donors will rise to the challenge and increase their support, the city can't rely on private funding alone. If the State Legislature and City Council don't approve the mayor's plans for increasing revenues, there could be deeper service cuts. Parks need regular maintenance, especially those that are heavily used. There is not much room left in the parks budget to cut before the downward spiral of the 1970's begins again.