With an aging system and years of cuts, does the Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department need more money?
The non-profit advocacy group, Philly Parks Alliance, claims that Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposed parks department budget for the fiscal year 2014 (starting July 1) falls about $5 million short of the money he promised and that council approved years earlier.
“It’s foolhardy and short-sighted not to give this department what it deserves,” said Philly Parks Alliance Executive Director Lauren Bornfriend.
City parks, which are used by everyone from kids to seniors, suffered budget cuts for years. The Parks Alliance estimates that in just the past five years the department has received $51.9 million less than it should have.
Bornfriend claims the money was proposed as part of Nutter’s five-year plan for FY 09-13. A look at Nutter’s five year proposals at that time show $2.5 million dedicated over five years to city parks and another $16.5 million to be doled out for Fairmount Park over the next five years.
That $19 million never made it to the parks department. Instead as recession hit, the parks department, like many city departments including libraries, suffered nearly four years of cuts as Nutter and the city tried to right Philly’s finances.
The parks department took cuts of 20 to 25 percent for three straight fiscal years, said spokesman Patrick Morgan.
The department also lost out on extra revenue collected when the city parking tax was hiked from 15 to 20 percent, Morgan said. That money was supposed to go to the parks department , but wound up going to the city -- something the parks department understood because of the so-called “Great Recession,” Morgan said.
During that time, the parks department found “clever and creative” ways to raise money including partnering with cooperate sponsors for opening city pools in summer and teaming up with the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation to keep ice rinks open in winter, Morgan said.
According to Morgan, they did the best they could to keep everything open and maintained while waiting for the economy to improve.
Some relief came this past January when they received a $2.6 million mid-fiscal year. That money increased the department's funding to the level at which it had been going into fiscal year 2009 -- around $51.2 million.
With the budget up for City Council approval again, Nutter has proposed to keep the department “held harmless,” a.k.a. static, for next year, but that doesn’t mean the mayor isn’t focused on needed improvements, according to almost everyone involved.
In his budget address last month, Nutter said the extra money for this year’s parks budget could be used to hire 40 workers to help primarily with the upkeep of city parks and facilities.
Morgan agreed. “The new money we’ve gotten will focus on operations and maintenance,” he said.
That upkeep seems desperately needed. City Controller Alan Butkovitz released a report Wednesday that found "dangerous and hazardous conditions" like locked fire exits and non-working fire extinguishers at city rec centers and playgrounds.
“These hazards and conditions can cause serious injury and harm to our children,” said Butkovitz in a press release. “Management and staff must take all safety measures, especially ensuring that exits are easily accessible in the event of an emergency.”
Butkovitz's report, which looked at 28 sites, also found water damage, outdated toilet facilities, clogged drains and other problems at certain rec centers.
"The improvements are definitely needed," said First Deputy Commissioner of Programs and Recreation Susan Slawson.
Slawson says the report uncovered many problems the department already knew about and are in the process of addressing.
"The goal is for us to constantly do our checks over time to get ahead of things," said Slawson.
Slawson says the department is also going to put standards in place that will help with preventative maintenance.
Parks advocates came out en masse Monday as Deputy Mayor for Environmental and Community Resources Michael DiBerardinis made his plea to City Council to approve the $51.2 million.
"This money is a needed investment in the great work of the department," DiBerardinis said. "After discussions with department leadership and staff we have determined the following priority spending areas: a special projects team which will enhance the capacity of the department’s skilled trades and grounds divisions through working with District City Council members to do small to medium sized capital projects; a year-round major systems preventative maintenance program; and quality day to day operations to support a parks and recreation system which is safe, clean and ready to use."
With nearly 12 million visitors to city parks last year, according to officials, more money is needed, according to the Parks Alliance.
“This department has been underfunded for decades,” said Bornfriend.
She echoes many of Butkovitz's maintenance and upgrade concerns, noting as well that additional money would allow more programs and expansion of current programs, especially for children.
For now, the Parks Department leaders and advoates are happy to keep the status quo.
"We are successfully leveraging external resources to deliver a high-quality product and make enhancements to our facilities, neighborhood parks, recreation centers, athletic fields, ice rinks, trails network, and tree planting efforts,” DiBerardinis said.
The Parks’ department budget still must be approved by City Council.