Fees for Parks. Also: Making Parks Political

by Anne Schwartz, Nov-Dec 2000

A longstanding Parks Department practice of soliciting "donations" from private groups that want to use city parks for large-scale events has come under increasing scrutiny recently. The issue came to a head when the National Museum of Catholic Art and History protested a last-minute requirement by the Parks department for a $20,000 payment in order to stage a fundraiser in an East Harlem Park

The immediate crisis was solved when an anonymous donor came up with the money, but the action angered City Council speaker Peter Vallone, who began an investigation. Parks Commissioner Henry Stern and Mayor Giuliani defended the practice, although Stern ultimately apologized for the way the request had been handled, saying that he would draw up new guidelines to clarify the process of soliciting donations. A City Council official confirmed news reports that Speaker Vallone and Mayor Giuliani were negotiating a revision of the system.

New Yorkers generally support charging private organizations for using the parks, especially profit-making companies, or when the event damages or prevents the public from using the park. Criticism has focused on the informal and sometimes vague nature of the requests, and whether the amounts requested are fair. In one article, the Colombian Civic Center and several other nonprofits bemoaned the increasingly steep fees they have been charged to hold festivals in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Another problem is lack of accountability for how the donations are spent. The money goes to a number of non-profits that help city parks, including the City Parks Foundation. If the money were given directly to the Parks Department, it would end up in the city government's general fund (like the $45 million in other revenues the Parks Department raised last year), where it could not be specifically earmarked for parks. But there is no public accounting for how much money is brought in and how it is spent.

Some parks advocates feel that decreasing public funding for parks has put pressure on the parks department to conduct this type of problematic fundraising, a charge that city officials deny. Although the city has had great success in raising private money to restore some of the city's flagship parks, maintenance suffers in many parks. Parks advocates wonder whether the city has gone too far in expecting private donations to make up for lack of public support.

Anne Sounds Off

We New Yorkers love our parks and rate them highly, but without realizing it, we have lowered our expectations for what kind of resources we can expect the city to devote to parks. The parks department operating budget, which covers maintenance and recreational programs, has been declining for decades and is now less than one half of one percent of the city budget. The city has cut the parks department staff in half since 1986. Private donations have made a dramatic difference in a few flagship parks, but haven't begun to close the gap overall. We're used to a shortage of playable ball fields and jam-packed pools and skating rinks. We're pleasantly surprised when the bathrooms work. Most New Yorkers don't even know that the city once had employees in most parks to provide upkeep and youth recreational programs.

This could change.

In 2001, because of term limits, we'll be electing a new mayor, comptroller, public advocate, and 36 of the 51 city council members. It's a golden opportunity to elect representatives who understand the importance of parks and recreation to the life of the city.

The Parks Council, a nonprofit advocacy group, has begun laying the groundwork to make the most of this opportunity. The organization's overall goal is to raise the parks department's operating funds to one percent of the city budget, as well as to make sure that this additional money is distributed equitably to bring parks throughout the city up to the standards of our best parks. As part of its "Campaign for Parks and Recreation: 2001," the council is developing profiles of parks, open space, and recreation facilities in every city council district, and meeting with all the candidates to educate them on park issues. It plans to publicize the position statements of the candidates on its web site. The council is also building s upport from many sectors of the community that depend on parks in some way but don't generally advocate for parks. This includes youth service agencies, sports leagues, real estate and business groups, schools, and the police force.

Just a relatively small additional investment of city funds in parks, with good managerial oversight, would reap significant dividends for nearly every aspect of city life. We can raise our expectations a little. After all, shouldn't a city like New York have a world-class park system?