The Same Old Budget Game

by Anne Schwartz, May 19, 2005

With a surplus in city revenues, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is handing out goodies to a number of constituencies in his election-year budget. But for the parks department, it’s another year on a low-calorie diet.

Although in recent years New York City has increased its capital expenditures for renovating old parks and creating new ones, it spends less per capita on maintaining and operating parks than most major U.S. cities. In 2003, the city spent $32 per resident, compared to an average of $60 per resident in 36 major U.S. cities, according to the Center for Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land.

Most observers agree that the parks department does a good job with limited resources. In addition, private funding has helped transform Central Park and others into green gems and continues to pay for the gardeners and other workers who keep them that way. But especially in the outer boroughs, many parks have worn grass and patchy plantings, locked or broken bathrooms, dusty and littered playing fields.

In its 2004 independent assessment of conditions at small neighborhood parks, The Report Card on Parks, the parks advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks gave almost a quarter of city parks a failing grade. It found that more than half the bathrooms were either closed or dirty and unsafe, 27 percent of the athletic fields were unacceptably maintained, and half of the sitting areas were littered, among other things.

The decline in funding over the last two decades has most affected the fulltime parks staff, which has decreased 60 percent in the last two decades. Most maintenance is now done by roving crews of temporary workers enrolled in a job-training program funded through the Human Resources Administration. Few parks have a staff person -- a "parkie" -- assigned to their care the way they once did, someone with a responsibility for that park and a relationship with its community. The department has also reduced the number of skilled workers, like gardeners, tree pruners, and plumbers. The 2005 budget, for example, funded for just 12 plumbers citywide -- one for every 53 bathrooms, 159 water fountains and 5 pools.

The Same Old Budget Game

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed operating budget for parks this year is essentially the same as last year. Actual city funding is $196 million, down slightly from last year’s $201 million. The executive budget once again proposes eliminating the entire street tree pruning program, as well as $7.3 million for about 600 seasonal workers; the three previous budgets have done the same thing, though the City Council usually restores both items, at least in part.

"It’s the same song and dance we have every year," said Maura Lout, research director at New Yorkers for Parks. "The mayor cuts the budget with the understanding that the Council will restore it. It really prevents us from taking the step we need, which is enhanced resources for the parks department."

The budget adds some new funding, however, for staffing at the 54th Street Recreation Center and the new park at Fort Totten, as well as for fighting the Asian longhorn beetle. In addition to the $197 million in city operating funds, there are interagency transfers of $42 million, about the same as last year, for workers in the job training program; $20 million for staff overseeing capital projects; and $5 million in federal block grant funding.

A Promise Unfulfilled

During the 2001 election campaign, in response to grassroots lobbying organized by New Yorkers for Parks, Mayor Bloomberg and a number of City Council members pledged to increase parks funding to one percent of the city budget.

After September 11th and the fiscal difficulties that followed, funding for parks was cut, along with that for other city agencies. In the last couple of years, funding has returned to the levels of the 1990s, around half a percent.

But parks advocates are crying foul now that the mayor has a surplus that he is willing to spend. "While it’s a great budget for many city agencies, it’s not a great budget for parks. We’re waiting for a restoration and an increase after decades of cuts," said Lout of New Yorkers for Parks.

As the 2005 election approaches, park advocates have begun a new effort to get a commitment from candidates for greater park funding. In its Parks 1 campaign, New Yorkers for Parks is asking candidates again to pledge to work toward allocating one percent of the city budget to parks.

As a specific first step, it is asking them to support legislation allowing the parks department to keep the roughly $40 million it gets in revenue from concessions such as restaurants, golf courses, and hot dog stands, in addition to its regular city funding. "It’s very easy for candidates and elected officials to say they are pro-park, but it is very easy not to put any muscle behind it," said Justin Krebs, campaign director of Parks 1.

Many other cities direct parks-generated revenue back to the parks. Some park supporters oppose the idea, however, warning that it would tempt the city to cut funding further and would result in greater commercialization of the parks.

Will advocates have more success this time in increasing resources for the parks? With other essential city services, like education and transportation, also in need of greater funding, it is easy for elected officials to continue to view parks as a luxury, far down on the list of priorities. The city has also turned increasingly to the private sector to take on the responsibility of caring for the parks. The cities with the best-maintained park systems often have some type of funding mechanism specifically for parks, unlike New York City, where park funding is at the mercy of the annual budget process and politics.

Yet the constituency for parks is getting larger, in tandem with the growing number of people contributing time and money to their local park. In April, 500 park and community garden supporters spent the day visiting the offices of City Council members. They came from all five boroughs to air concerns about their neighborhood parks and to ask for increased funding for parks.

More than half of the City Council members have signed the pledge, along with Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. So far, Mayor Bloomberg has not taken a position, although according to New York Metro, the free daily, his spokesman Jordan Barowitz said, "The Parks Department deserves every penny that the city can afford, but unless you identify a new source of revenue, that money from concessions is used to educate our children, pay our police officers and build affordable housing."