In recent years, the city’s parks have become greener and cleaner as a result of a substantial increase in capital spending for park renovation, as well as the growth of park groups that raise private funding for maintenance and provide volunteer labor. Many new parks, large and small, are in the works, including the High Line, Fresh Kills, and a new six-acre park on the Keyspan site in Queens.
At the same time, however, city allocations to maintain the parks and provide recreational programs, cut repeatedly over the last two decades, have not been restored. The parks department has made effective use of the resources it has, including temporary workers in various welfare-to-work programs funded by the Human Resources Agency. Its internal inspection ratings of park conditions are at an all-time high, according to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. But a comparison of the beautifully maintained plantings and trees, lush lawns, and green ball fields in privately funded Central Park with the scraggly grass, dirt fields, and trees in need of pruning in, say, Queensbridge Park, illustrates how more horticultural attention could improve many parks.
The city’s annual budget process works against any significant increase in funding to care for the parks. Typically, the mayor proposes a baseline that is lower than the previous year’s adopted budget, and the City Council adds back in most or all of the items that were cut. This keeps the focus on restoring programs instead of adding funding.
This year, the mayor’s preliminary budget eliminates $14 million for 600 seasonal park employees, the entire street tree pruning effort, and an after-school program at the recreation centers. It also cuts the one major new budget item from last year, the 50 new Park Enforcement Patrol officers added amid concern about crime in the parks, which had increased the force to 110. In early April, three of the newly hired PEP officers stopped an attempted rape in Forest Park in Queens.
“Saving lives shouldn’t be part of a budget dance,” said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, the citywide parks advocacy group. “I think that we should all just agree these are necessary programs and they should be funded. More energy should be put by the Council and the Mayor to improving park service with additional funds, particularly when there is a surplus.”
Park advocates are lobbying for the council to add $9 million to the parks budget to almost double the PEP force to 200 officers and to increase the frequency of tree pruning from the current ten-year cycle to the generally accepted standard of pruning each tree every seven years.
The additional funding would also include $3 million for expanding the Neighborhood Parks Initiative, a partnership of the parks department, the City Parks Foundation, and the Central Parks Conservancy inaugurated in 30 parks last year. The program assigns a full-time gardener and playground associate to outer-borough parks in need of better maintenance. The Central Park Conservancy helped train the new gardeners, the first to be hired by the parks department in years. One of the goals is to disseminate the practices that have improved Central Park so dramatically, including the zone management system that gives gardeners personal responsibility for a specific section of the park.
Drawing Revenue from the Parks
The parks department also raises about $60 million a year through concessions and various fees. The money goes into the general fund, not directly to parks, but it helps buffer the department from budget cuts.
For the next fiscal year, the city is proposing to bring in additional revenue by charging membership fees at the six recreation centers receiving federal Community Development Block Grant funding. These recreation centers had remained free in 2003 when the city began charging visitors to most centers. The fee is $50, or $75 for centers with pools. (Children up to age 18 can still use the centers for free, and there is a reduced senior fee.)
The new fees are projected to bring in $2 million. But that revenue goal may be unrealistic, according to the Independent Budget Office. Its recent analysis of center use and revenue after the fees were instituted found that attendance dropped at the centers charging the higher amount, while it increased at the free and less expensive centers.
The analysis suggests that once fees are imposed at the formerly free centers, fewer people -- especially from the lower income populations that are at higher risk of obesity and diabetes -- will use them. If charging for using park facilities ends up discouraging people from using them, it undermines the mission of the parks department as well as the larger public policy goal of improving the health of residents.
Commissioner Benepe takes issue with that conclusion, however. “What we have found is that when it’s free, lots of people join, but very few people actually come,” he said. “When people pay, they tend to use it more.” He noted that the fees were a fraction of a typical health club membership. He also said there was no difference in the socioeconomic status of people using the community development-funded centers and the others, so that it was more equitable to charge a fee at all centers.
The Independent Budget Office also looked at what happened when the parks department raised the price of a season’s tennis court pass from $50 to $100. Doubling the price led to a 40 percent drop in the number of passes sold, resulting in only a 16 percent increase in income, part of which came from higher sales of one-time use passes. The budget office found that tennis court usage “appeared to have dropped off significantly,” and concluded that a smaller price increase might have resulted in both greater total revenues and court use.
Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.
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