The Parks Department's budget is shrinking, as is its ability to keep New York City parks in states of good repair. That can lead to discontent, which boiled over in dramatic fashion this morning during a City Council hearing on the Parks Department budget.
Following Commissioner Adrian Benepe's testimony in a tightly packed hearing room at 250 Broadway, Parks Committee chair Melissa Mark-Viverito turned the floor over to her colleagues on the panel.
When it was Staten Island councilman Jimmy Oddo's turn to speak, he quickly turned the discussion to the issue ofWillowbrook Park Pond, which overflowed during Hurricane Irene and flooded nearby homes, and which, like the hurricane-damaged boardwalk in Rockaway, have yet to be repaired.
Here's some of the exchange:
Oddo: I hope you're familiar with the situation at Willowbrook Park. Your pond on your park gets backed up, overflows to the tune of eight feet in people's basements. Was that an act of God?
Oddo: It was an act of God?
Oddo: Actually, commissioner, it was an act of man. Actually, more precisely, it was the inaction of man. And 'man' in this case is colloquial for 'your agency.' Your agency didn't keep the drain and the culvert in good repair. It got backed up. It got backed up by softballs and plastic bottles.
Benepe: Hurricane Irene did untold damage across the northeast, billions of dollars of damage. It did millions and millions of dollars of damage across the city. It was an act of God. We are very conscious of all of the different places where infrastructure needs to be adapted to the fact that sea levels are rising, storms are becoming more frequent and more unpredictable.
Oddo: Wait a second, wait a second. An act of God would be some of your trees getting blown down. Water backing up to the tune of eight feet in people's basement because your culvert...
Benepe: That's your view of things.
Oddo: That's not my view of things! That's my view of things? You deny that your culvert was, you're saying it was in good repair? You're saying that wasn't the reason for the flooding?
Benepe: You know, there was a hurricane that caused hundreds of millions of dollars if not billions of damage across the northeast.
Oddo: Wait a second, if the culvert was working right and you had a good system, you wouldn't have had eight feet in people's basement. That wasn't an act of God!
Benepe: Hindsight is 50/50.
Oddo: Oh, commissioner. Wow. Wow. That's what you think? That's your attitude for my district? And for these people in Saybrook?
Benepe: The Culvert was covered with trees blown down by the hurricane.
Oddo: No it was not! I was out there! I was out there in the rain! I was out there. It was certainly not. It was blocked up by softballs and plastic bottles ... It's an embarrassment! It's an embarrassment! And the fact that you're giving me such a cavalier attitude is consistent with your history, but it still blows my mind.
Benepe: Thank you very much, councilmember.
Oddo: You know, commissioner, these are people who are part of the City of New York. And the fact that you have such a cavalier attitude about what they've endured for the last four months is really a disgrace. It's really a disgrace. I've come to accept the cost overruns, and the time delays as Councilmember Lander has alluded to. But this attitude is unacceptable, it really is. It's disgraceful. And this is the same attitude from the man who made a comment about Staten Island, about who has class and who doesn't have class. That is absolutely outrageous. If Rudy Giuliani were the mayor, you would have been canned a long time ago. You realize that?
Benepe: Have a nice day, councilmember.
Oddo: Disgraceful that you don't care. You can hate me all you want. But the fact that you don't think it's a priority to address, to find $700,000 so that these people don't have to go through that again, so that every time that there's a forecast of heavy rain, their lives aren't turned upside down, the fact that you don't care about that, is really an absolute, it's an amazing thing.
Benepe: That's simply inaccurate. It was our staff who were out there in the hurricane.
Oddo: No, no, no, it was D.E.P. It was D.E.P. out there.
Benepe: It was our staff.
Oddo: Oh please, it was D.E.P. who we called up to fix after the hurricane. Please. You weren't there, sir. I was.
Benepe: Our staff was there, and I have pictures of it.
Mark-Viverito intervened to say she thought Oddo had made his point and asked him if he had any specific questions on the budget. He didn't, but he did have one last thing to say.
"I'll tell ya, I can't wait for the 650 days to be up," he said. "I can't wait till we get someone in there who treats all five boroughs equally."
Benepe went on to field questions about tree-stump removal, and the lack of money for such things.
According to the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, the Parks Department's staff has been reduced by nearly 40 percent since 2008, primarily in the maintenance and operations department. This year's proposed budget for the department, which controls some 29,000 acres of parkland in New York City, would eliminate funding for up to 800 Job Training Program participants, who do a lot of parks maintenance.
Benepe indicated in his written testimony, delivered at the beginning of the hearing, that the department's financial circumstances were dire:
"Without the Council's restorations, staff promoted to supervise pool and beach operations will not be replaced, and coverage for seasonal operations such as tennis courts, ballfields, spray showers, picnic and barbeque areas and grass cutting will be curtailed. In addition, we will once again be forced to close four pools and shorten the pool season for all the pools by two weeks citywide."