With a new mayoral administration and a new New York City Council, there may be some changes in how the city addresses the parks system. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been slow in naming a new commissioner for the parks department, but the City Council has already taken action by forming a separate committee for the oversight of parks and recreation. The new committee will be chaired by Joseph Addabbo, Jr., of Queens, who is considered a strong supporter of parks. Park advocates had been lobbying for this change. Previously, parks issues were addressed through a committee that also covered cultural affairs, libraries, and inter-group relations.
Although both Mayor Bloomberg and new New York City Council Speaker Gifford Miller mentioned the importance of parks in their inaugural speeches and supported increased funding for parks during the campaign, it remains to be seen how the city's budget problems will affect park and recreation services. The parks department operating budget has declined 40 percent since 1986, although the capital budget was increased in recent years.
Now there is uncertainty about whether the parks department will lose the labor provided by thousands of former welfare recipients under a subsidized seasonal jobs program. The New York Times reported that just before the end of the Giuliani administration, the former human resources commissioner notified the parks department that he was shifting 3,500 former welfare recipients working for the parks department at union wages to a private temp employment agency paying a lower hourly wage. It is unclear whether they will be making this lower wage at the parks department, or whether they will be now working elsewhere.
About 200 of these parks workers whose assignment ends in February could be the first to be affected. Human Resources Administration spokeswoman Deborah Sproles said, however, that that no action has been taken so far, and that the change was being considered only as one option in an overall reassessment of the program. She says the city is looking at the program in the light of funding issues and of finding the right balance between private and public sector jobs. Yes, it is possible that the workers may not be reassigned to the parks department, she said. "The question is what is best for the workers -- that's going to drive what the final program looks like."
The welfare workers are paid mostly through a federal program and not from the parks department budget. During the past eight years, the parks department has come to depend heavily upon these workers to clean and maintain the parks as the number of regular parks employees has been cut. Parks department positions dropped from more than 4,000 in 1991 to about 1,900 now. A November 1, 2000 report by the Independent Budget Office looked at the contribution welfare workers made in improving park conditions at a time when the parks department lost more than half its staff. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's request to city agencies to cut their budgets by 20 percent is likely to further reduce the parks department's work force.
Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in environmental issues. Previously, she was the editor of the Audubon Activist, a news journal for environmental action published by the National Audubon Society, and an editor at The New York Botanical Garden.