Heckscher Ballfields - Central Park. Do Your Fields Look Like This? Central Park is meticulously maintained by the Conservancy. Unlike in municipally maintained parks the playing fields are lush and well cared for. Dedicated personnel are assigned to maintain the park's 28 ballfields. Central Park's annual operating budget is now up to $ 58 million dollars. However unlike the city they protect the money they invest into the park. (Photo: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates)
By Geoffrey Croft
By Geoffrey Croft
As most people are acutely aware our park system is enormously underfunded. The policy of allowing public parks in wealthy areas to be paid for by private donations while most languish due to a lack of public funds has further compounded the problem, it has created a wildly disparate, separate and decidedly unequal park system.
And although these are city-wide problems that affect virtually every segment of the population, it is no secret that a disproportionate amount of the most severe issues exist in poor neighborhoods, among the city’s underserved communities—namely, the working class, the poor and the disenfranchised, and in areas populated by people predominantly of color. The City’s increasing reliance on public/private partnerships has resulted in a vastly inequitable distribution of services. It has become “a tale of two cities.”
The fact that Central Park receives large private donations while 99.9% parks do not is not the problem. The Central Park Conservancy exists solely because of a failed city policy i.e. our elected officials refusal to take care of all of our parks so the wealthiest people per capita in the world took matters into their own hands. This is hardy a sustainable model, nor should it be.
Each year our elected officials allocate approximately one-third of the desperately needed funds required to properly operate our public parks. This year is no different. The Mayor's preliminary budget allocates just $301.2 million in city-funds - just .52 % of the overall city budget in city funds for an agency responsible for 14 % of the city's land. Up until the 1960's parks received up to 1.4 % of the city budget or greater. An astonishing decrease.
For decades the public has been told the expense funding needed to hire the employees that are so desperately needed are not available. Increasingly these basic services are being paid for privately in wealthy neighborhoods.
What this means in practical terms is that those chosen few have dedicated staff assigned to individual parks while the vast majority of the rest have to make due with the deplorable and unequal conditions found throughout the city.
Senator Squadron introduced the controversial legislation as a means he says to help address the inequity.
Squadron's "Neighborhood Parks Alliance," would form partnerships between a "well-financed" conservancy and less fortunate parks.
Under the plan a poor park would perform tasks like gathering signatures from local residents, establishing their own conservancy group, and receiving a city commitment, from the Parks Department and local council members, to maintain current government financing levels.
The issue of seizing money from organizations is a non starter for a number of reasons the first one being the legality of such a ridiculous proposal.
A clue to the fundamental flaw in Sen. Squadron’s well-intentioned but deeply misguided law is the lack of the government’s role and responsibility in addressing and preventing these issues.
In a May 24th Op-ED published in the New York Times announcing his proposal Senator Squadron asked, "Can A Tree Grow In The Bronx" when a park like Central receives large private donations while most parks do not.
Mr. Squadron spent just 32 words out 746 acknowledging the responsibility of the government.
"One solution," he writes, "is to provide more financing for parks in the annual city and state budgets."
No, that is THE solution.
And while he does admit his plan "is not a comprehensive solution" to the problem of open-space equity, his idea is fundamentally flawed non-the-less and sends the wrong priority.
Legislating Public Donations?
A few weeks after his May Op-Ed Mr. Squadron introduced the pass-the-buck legislation.
When asked if the 20 percent under his proposal would be voluntary or mandated by law Squadron replied, " Our hope is that….. folks would step up and be interested in being a part of this voluntarily but my legislation would require it. "
And while Mr. Squadron admits that city and state have cut funding for parks "in ways that are unacceptable" I could find no evidence of him truly fighting to correct this cronic budget shortfall including authoring legislation to address this pressing issue.
In the same interview he also bizarrely claimed that, "for large parts of the city they don't see the effects of those cuts if you live near Central Park or if you live near Prospect Park whatever your lifestyle is you don't experience the injustice of these parks cuts. "
That is simply not true.
The interview got off to a bad start Squadron cited statistics that left out almost half of our parkland - State and Federal facilities - that reside in our city. (He's a NY State Senator)
Queens City Council Member Peter Vallone - who was then running for Queens Borough President followed suit.
He sent out a press release entitled, GRASS SHOULDN'T BE GREENER ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COUNTY FENCE!” announcing he would be introducing legislation mandating that all park conservancies with more than $5 million in the bank would be legally required to donate 20 percent of their funds to maintain parks that have received a grade of unsatisfactory for two consecutive years.
At a City Council hearing last May Mr. Vallone said he had lunch with Senator Squadron and discussed the idea.
This well-intentioned but deeply misguided law shows clear lack of understanding of the enormous problems facing our vast but severely under-resourced park system. Relying on what in reality are a few conservancies to deliver the tens of billions of dollars in capital needs and another three quarter of a billion dollars annually for maintenance and operation is deeply misguided.
On Thursday at a City Council hearing Mr. Squadron testified that he thought his proposal could generate approximately $ 15 million dollars annually - in other words enough to build a few bathrooms. Another unfortunate consequence of this conversation is that it is detracting from the real issue - that our elect officials refuse to fund parks as an essential city service.
The city itself has already created a number of non-profits with the expressed mission to encourage donors to contribute to less fortunate parks city-wide. They have had to put it mildly an extremely limited impact city-wide on the deplorable and unequal conditions found throughout the city.
The solution to the inequality issue is not a secret: The administration needs to take responsibility by dramatically increasing the parks budget and ensure they are distributed based on need and not on politics or private interests, while also demanding accountability from an agency that is in desperate need of reform.
But first a detailed and honest assessment of our park system's is required, something multiple administrations have refused to do.
Unfortunately the political will necessary to provide funding for safe, well-maintained parks, and public recreation programs that every neighborhood deserves, simply does not exist. It is not a priority.
Experience with public/private partnerships over the last 30 years has proven that the private subsidization of individual parks, however well intentioned, has created an enormous gap between the haves and the have-nots, while ignoring the real problem—that our parks are not funded as an essential government service.
All New Yorkers deserve this, not just those who can to afford to pay "extra." This is a basic quality-of-life issue.
Early last summer then mayoral candidate Bill de blasio announced his support for Squadron's initiative as well as the irresponsible Flushing Meadow Park Alliance being created by Council Member Julissa Ferreras and a Parks Department partner group New Yorkers For Parks.
We do not need another Alliance, a funding model dependent on businesses exploiting and destroying our parklands - we need the government to do its job and adequately fund our public parks.
Compounding the problem are the remarks of consecutive Parks Commissioners.
"We have a great operating budget," Veronica White embarrassingly testified at a City Council hearing, a view consistently shared by Adrain Benepe who was fond of the calling the funding "robust."
These are irresponsible and dangerous statements that harm communities and the city as a whole.
While working under Michael Bloomberg over the last decade Mr. Benepe had a tough time publicly admitting the poor conditions that plague the park system - and no amount of "surveys" from his current employer will be able to change that reality.
Mr. Benepe called the disparity a "phony premise" in one of many embarrassing moments caught during an interview on NY 1 in 2013.
"I think they are nothing but positive," he said of the conservancy model in a typical Benepe see-no-evil defensive moment.
"The beauty of that is that it allows the city to take its public dollars and allocate them to the vast majority of parks that don't get any private support," he said in a claim that is clearly not supported by the city's continued lack of underfunding.
The City - including Mr. Benepe - claim that $ 165 million dollars is now being brought in annually from private funds to parks however less than half of that amount is accounted for in a reporting mechanism created to monitor such funds. A 2008 law specifically meant to expose city parks' inequalities by tracking private allocations is not being adequately enforced. A staple of the Bloomberg administration - the lack of accountability.
We are happy this administration, and others have finally begun to embrace our decade-old park Tale of Two Cities inequity campaign, a disparity it is important to note that the Bloomberg administration including the Parks Department partner group New Yorkers For Parks absurdly pretended did not exist.
We expect the city's new leadership who were elected on a "progressive" agenda to tackle the policies that have resulted in our Tale Of Two Cities park system have clearly existed for far too long.
We need to attack the very system that allows and encourages this enormous disparity and discrimination in the first place, not invite more.
Until these things happen nothing will change.
Geoffrey Croft - is the founder and president of NYC Park Advocates, a city-wide watchdog group.
An excerpt of this post will appear in Sunday's Daily News.