In the last budget of his administration, Mayor Giuliani is again proposing to reduce the operating funds allotted to the parks department. The proposed $12 million cut would affect tree pruning and recreation programs, as well as eliminate 42 fulltime staff positions and replace them with seasonal workers.
In past years, the City Council has restored many of the mayor's proposed cuts. Capital spending - borrowed money earmarked for park acquisitions and renovations - has also increased. But public funding for parks maintenance and recreation has been on a long downward trend. The parks operating budget is 25 percent lower than it was 1991, and 40 percent lower than in 1986, and the parks department now has less than half the fulltime staff it had in 1986.
This year Council Speaker Peter Vallone has called not only to restore the mayor's cuts, but also for additional funding. At a news conference held with park advocates and members of Local 1505 of District Council 37, the union representing the largest number of park employees, he condemned the funding decline over the last decade. "We can't have the administration come in and tell us we need no more money for parks," he said. "The mentality that supposes there are people out there who are going to adopt parks and supplement funding is not true for most parks."
Asked why he is only now making the park staff cuts a priority, Vallone said that the situation had been continuing and had reached the point of urgency. He noted that large staff reductions were made directly after the recession, and that other city agencies had seen their funding restored, but not parks. "The time has come to catch up," he said.
At the City Council committee hearing on the parks budget, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern said that ratings of park conditions, which have improved greatly over the past eight years, were beginning to slump. He requested more money for park workers, attributing the slip in ratings to the loss of 3,000 part-time Work Experience Program workers, who had been cleaning parks in a temporary program designed to get welfare recipients into the job force. In questioning Stern, committee members discussed maintenance problems in parks outside of Manhattan and the need for more park enforcement officers. They also expressed concern that park conditions could get markedly worse if staffing levels were not increased.
Park advocates are asking the council not only to restore the mayor's cuts but also to increase the parks budget by at least $10 million, to pay for basic services like enforcement, recreation, gardening, and lawn and ball field maintenance. Looking toward the next administration, Parks 2001, a coalition that includes advocacy groups as well as business, real estate, sports, youth, labor, and law-enforcement organizations, is campaigning to increase funding for parks to 1 percent of the city budget from the current 0.4 percent.
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.