Opening Statement at the Parks Committee's Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Hearing

HON. MARK D. LEVINE, CHAIR of the COMMITTEE ON PARKS AND RECREATION
OPENING STATEMENT
FISCAL 2018 PRELIMINARY BUDGET HEARING -- March 21, 2017


Good morning, and welcome to the Parks and Recreation Committee’s Hearing on the Fiscal Year 2018 Preliminary Budget and the Fiscal Year 2017 Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report for the Department of Parks and Recreation. My name is Mark Levine and I am the Chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee.

In keeping with the budget process mandated by the City Charter that will ultimately lead to the adoption of the Fiscal Year 2018 budget, today we will hear testimony from the Department of Parks and Recreation on its Expense and Capital Budgets for Fiscal Year 2018.

Park use in New York City is surging. There are now 42 million visitors per year in Central Park alone--double the number of who visit Disney World.  Over 7 million people visit the High Line annually and 5 million visit Bryant Park. On a peak summer weekend, 127,000 visit Brooklyn Bridge Park.
These trends are repeated throughout every borough, in parks both large and small.

But I am sorry to say that the budget of our Parks Department is not keeping pace.

After decades of decline relative to total City spending, the Parks budget as currently proposed by the administration is set to fall yet again, down to just 0.58% of the total budget, with a drop in dollar terms of $19 million, and--most worrisome of all--a net drop in staff of 175 full-time employees.

For the third year in a row, the mayor’s budget fails to baseline $9.7 million for critical park maintenance workers, which would lead to a loss of 50 gardeners and 100 CPWs who would be laid off as of June 30th--depriving our parks of sorely needed staffing, and depriving 150 hard-working New Yorkers of their livelihood.

This situation is made all the more dire by the threat of the Trump administration to totally eliminate Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) from the federal budget, a move translating to the loss of $4.5 million in funding for the Parks Department, dealing a near-fatal blow to Green Thumb, a program which relies heavily on CDBG funds for its work to support the city’s network of 600 wonderful community gardens.

We simply cannot tolerate a reduction in parks resources at a time of record levels of park usage and a growing city population. Rather, we need to make targeted investments to enhance key, high-impact initiatives within the department:
  • For starters, we need to continue to grow the number of Parks Enforcement Patrol, or PEP officers, since today their ranks are still so thin that most parks at most times have not even a single officer on duty.  
  • We need to expand funding for street tree pruning, as rising costs have pushed us back to an unacceptable 10-year cycle for pruning.  We need an additional $2.7m for this important work in order to return to the 7-year pruning cycle needed to keep trees healthy and streets safe.
  • We need $3m to increase our Urban Park Rangers program by adding 50 new positions on top of the paltry 30 in place today.  This will not bring us anywhere near the historic high of 200 rangers, but it will provide critical new personnel to support environmental education, outdoor recreation, wildlife management and active conservation.
  • We need $1 million for 10 more outreach coordinators for Partnership for Parks.  These are critical on-the-ground staff that are working to support “friends of” groups around the city.  Currently only 10 outreach workers service the entire parks system, giving each impossibly large portfolios of groups to each of the current staff.
  • And we need $1.7m to permanently expand the City’s beach and pool season by a week beyond Labor Day.

I would now like to turn our attention to the capital side of the budget.  Under Commissioner Silver the department has launched three vital new capital initiatives that have done much to advance equity and access in our parks system.  Sadly, none of these programs received additional rounds of funding in the administration’s current capital budget proposal.  
  • First is the Community Parks Initiative. We are calling for a third round of investment in this program, which helps revitalize small, neglected parks in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.  We are calling for an additional $150 million to support approximately 40 more CPI parks.
  • Second is the Anchor Parks Initiative, which provides a major infusion of capital to renovate heavily used mid-sized parks.  We are calling for an additional commitment of $150 million to facilitate the renovation of 5 more anchor parks.
  • Third is Parks Without Borders, the brainchild of Commissioner Silver, an initiative which makes parks more open and welcoming by improving entrances and park-adjacent spaces. We’re calling for another round of investment of $30m in this successful and popular program.

At in a time when the city’s population has now surpassed 8.5 million and appears headed to a staggering 9 million, we also need to invest in the expansion of our parks system.  Fortunately there are many inspirational projects on the drawing board throughout the city that would give us the additional green space we so desperately need.
  • Let’s build the Queensway, a miles-long linear park that would make use of an abandoned rail line to connect many un-served neighborhoods in central and southeast Queens.
  • Let’s also bring some environmental justice to park-starved Bushwick and deck over part of the BQE to create a new green space called BQ Green.
  • Let’s undo the damage done to nature in generations past, by “daylighting” Tibbett’s Brook in the Northwest Bronx, unearthing a long-buried stream to realize major environmental benefits and create new recreation space.
  • Let’s build the world’s first underground park, by turning an abandoned trolley terminal into the LowLine on the rapidly developing Lower East Side.
  • And let’s build on recent City and State commitments to renovate the bathhouse at Orchard Beach in the Bronx by investing in desperately needed upgrades to the surrounding grounds as well.

Let’s think big. Let’s ensure that every community in the city--especially low- and moderate-income neighborhoods--has a thriving green space.  Let’s bring spectacular new parks to life for a growing and ever-more-active population. Let’s create a parks budget worthy of this great city.

We will now hear from Commissioner Silver of the Department of Parks and Recreation - Thank you.

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