In the discussion about whether the city should allow protesters to rally on Central Park's Great Lawn before the Republican Convention, one issue has been left out: Where would the money come from to fix the trampled grass and plants? The New York Post was wrong when it editorialized, "Plant a new lawn. Grass seed is cheap." It requires money and skilled staff to keep a lawn green and lush. Even with ordinary use, the city's collective backyard needs frequent soil repair and reseeding. Yet New York City spends less than most major cities in the country on maintaining its parks. City funding for operating the parks has dwindled over the past two decades to less than half a percent of the city budget. That's why the lawns in many parks — those without the substantial private funding of Central Park — are little more than weeds and dirt.
This situation is unlikely to change in next year's budget, which will be finalized in negotiations between Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council this spring. With tax revenues up and increases projected for the next fiscal year, Mayor Bloomberg is proposing to increase spending in a number of areas. But just a small amount of extra money would trickle down to the parks department..
Although the numbers in the executive budget look good - $187 million in city funds to parks maintenance and operations, up from $164 million last year - the mayor is allocating about the same amount of money to parks as last year. Most of this increase reflects a shift in funding sources for the parks job training program, which is covered by state and federal funding through the Human Resources Administration. Next year, however, the city will be paying the program's supervisors through the parks department budget.
There is some real new funding, however. The mayor's budget provides money for 34 new employees to run the recently opened Chelsea Recreation Center. It is the first recreation center opened in the city in more than 30 years, offering state-of-the-art facilities and numerous activities for children and adults in an area with few parks or other places for recreation.
The budget also provides for hiring 40 new architects to work in the capital division on renovation and new construction projects.
Aside from those new items, the executive budget sticks mostly to the usual game where the mayor eliminates previously funded services only to restore them in negotiations with the City Council, although there are slightly fewer cuts from the current budget than in recent years. This tactic diverts attention from the larger issue of the need for significant increases for a department that has lost more than half of its fulltime staff over the past 15 years.
Unlike last year, when funding cuts originally proposed by the mayor would have closed the Queens and Prospect Park zoos, Mayor Bloomberg allocated $9.2 million to the Wildlife Conservation Society for the city's three zoos. He also put $6.3 million in the budget for seasonal park employees, about half the money needed to keep staffing at the current level during the months when the parks are most heavily used. However, he eliminated all funding for street tree pruning, while adding $6 million for fighting the Asian long-horned beetle to make up for cuts in federal funding.
More than 200 people, organized by the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, descended on the City Council offices in April to lobby for the restoration of tree-pruning and seasonal worker funding, and also to ask their council members to allocate an extra $20 million to the parks department for gardeners, tree pruners, enforcement officers, and other fulltime professional staff. "The city is in a better economic position," said Christian DiPalermo, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks. He noted that when the economy improved in the early 1990s, the parks operating budget was never restored. Sacrifices were necessary after 9/ll, he said, but "we don't want to be the forgotten child again."
"We've shown from our Ernst & Young study how parks investment pays its way," said DiPalermo. The study found rising real estate values and higher tax revenues in neighborhoods where parks were restored and continued to be maintained. "That's the economic side," he said. "One just needs to look at Central Park to understand what investing in parks means to the quality of our city life."
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.