Opening Statement on Parks Preliminary Budget

COMMITTEE ON PARKS AND RECREATION

FISCAL 2017 PRELIMINARY BUDGET HEARING

March 3, 2016

 HON. MARK D. LEVINE, CHAIR

 OPENING  STATEMENT

Good morning, and welcome to the Parks and Recreation Committee’s Hearing on the Fiscal 2017 Preliminary Budget and the Fiscal 2016 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 line with the budget process mandated by the City Charter that ultimately will lead to the adoption of the Fiscal 2017 budget, today we will hear testimony from the Department of Parks and Recreation on its Expense and Capital Budgets for Fiscal 2017.

New York City today devotes only a little over one half of one percent of its total budget to its parks--far less than at other points in our history, and less than most other large cities in America today. 

Thanks to the creativity and hard work of the Parks Department staff, the efforts of thousands of volunteers, and the increasing generosity of private donors, our parks today are still far better off in almost every way compared to years past.  

Improvements in our parks system, however, have not been felt equally throughout the city--with particularly striking contrasts between parks with well-funded conservancies and those in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, and even differences in quality amongst purely publicly funded parks.   We thankfully are beginning to chip away at these inequities, with conservancies providing significantly increased support to parks in less well-off areas.  And legislation the Council passed last year will for the first time give us the data we need to compare spending from all sources on a park-by-park basis.

The mayor’s preliminary budget contains some excellent news for park users, most notably the addition of 67 new Parks Enforcement Personnel, which will help improve the parks experience in key locations around the five boroughs.

Sadly, that’s about it for good news in the preliminary parks budget.  While there is a nominal projected increase in the department’s total spending from $454.7 million in FY16 to $459.3 million for FY17, this actually represents a slight drop in the portion of the total city budget we are devoting to our parks, from 0.58% this year to 0.56% next year.

And at a time when usage of our parks system is soaring this proposed budget may actually amount to a decrease in funding per user.  On the critical measure of headcount, the 7,185 full-time equivalent positions that would be funded under the proposed FY17 budget would actually represent a drop of 19 employees. 

And unfortunately, for the second year running the mayor’s budget fails to baseline $8.7 million for park maintenance workers which the City Council put in place last year.  The loss of these funds will mean that 50 gardeners and 100 maintenance workers would be laid off as of June 30th--depriving our parks of critical staffing, and depriving 150 hard working New Yorkers of their livelihood.

New Yorkers deserve better.  We deserve a parks budget which reflects the outsized role our precious green spaces play in the life of every community in this city.  A few of the ways I believe this budget can and should be improved include the following:

  • We need to expand resources for our city’s sprawling network of natural areas, which totals more than 10,000 acres--and today is supported by a total staff of only 75, far less than what we need to adequately maintain resources which play such an important part in our city’s environmental resilience.

  • Today there are a total of only 30 Parks Rangers for all of New York City--down dramatically from nearly 200 in years past. Rangers serve as ambassadors to the natural world, supporting environmental education, outdoor recreation, wildlife management and active conservation. But today their number is so paltry that most New Yorkers will simply never come into contact with them and might not even be aware of their existence.  We need $1m to hire more Park Rangers, specifically those specializing in wildlife management.

  • We need $11M to further develop and expand the Department’s Seasonal staff, including park workers, playground associates, gardeners and other supervisors--so we have adequate staffing during the warmer months in which park usership is so heavy.

  • We need $4.5 in expense funding for smaller vehicle fleets, which are not considered capital, and are especially important in larger parks like Riverside, Morningside or Van Cortlandt.

  • We need $500k to complete the Department’s extensive and informative tree census, which will give every tree its own webpage detailing its species, age, amount of maintenance and other useful information.

  • We need $2.6m for LIDAR mapping and for digitizing map files that will provide improved information for planning purposes as well as greater public transparency.

  • We need $1m to offer more employee training that will better prepare staff for specialty roles within the Department and to train those rising through the ranks into managerial positions.

  • We need $1.7m to hire an artificial turf maintenance crew. As the number of artificial turf fields under DPR’s jurisdiction is growing, so is the need for special care and maintenance of these fields beyond the usual seasonal cleanups. A dedicated and trained crew should be put in place to make repairs and better fix turf issues as their arise.

  • We need $750k for GreenThumb to hire 6 Outreach Coordinators and 6 field technical staff--double the current levels--to better manage gardens and to hire additional staff to implement expanded education programs at the gardens and to help community groups resolve administrative issues.

  • Finally, we need $2.4m to permanently expand the beach season by a week beyond Labor Day, and to keep pools open an extra week for the first time as well.

Lest you think that this list of important budget enhancements would be prohibitively expensive, I’ll point out that every one of these items combined would only push the Parks Department budget from its current level of 0.56% of the City’s total budget to 0.59%.

I now want to say a few words about the Parks Department’s capital budget.  During the Bloomberg era, the City committed hundreds of millions of dollars to grand, transformative projects like the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Governor’s Island.

Some critics lamented the fact that this mega spending was focused on the city’s wealthier areas, with far less investment in parks in outlying low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.

But I believe that the best response to this criticism isn’t to simply end the era of grand parks projects--as the current capital budget does.  Our response should be to continue to invest heavily, but to focus these resources on parks in areas of the city which have been too often left behind.  

Let’s renovate St. Mary’s in the South Bronx, a park desperately in need of investment in the heart of the Mott Haven community.

Or long-neglected Astoria Park in Queens, heavily used by a thriving immigrant community

Let’s think big and turn an abandoned rail line into the Queensway, a miles-long linear park.

Let’s 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 reclaim lost resources, and “daylight” Tibbet’s Brook in the Northwest Bronx, unearthing a long-buried stream to create new recreation space.

Let’s expand waterfront access on the north shore of Staten Island, and connect the growing number of new attractions emerging there.

Let’s finish the renovation of Ft. Washington Park in Southern Washington Heights, and create the long-planned comfort station and operations building along the Hudson River at 159th St.

These projects are not cheap.  They can’t be funded with $2 and $3 million allocations from Councilmembers and borough presidents.  They will require major investment by the Parks Department itself.   But these projects could easily be accommodated if we simply returned to the Bloomberg era pace of capital spending on parks.  And with the City’s current debt today more than $14B below its statutory limit, there is ample fiscal room to make a relatively modest bump-up in parks capital spending over the next decade..  

Making this kind of investment would have a transformative impact in neighborhoods all over the five boroughs--in the places where the potential for private contributions is minimal and where the City Itself has underinvested for years.  

Let’s start thinking big again.  Let’s double down on investment in our parks.  Let’s bring spectacular new green spaces to life for the New Yorkers who most stand to benefit.   Let’s create a parks budget worthy of this great city.

I look forward to hearing the administration’s testimony on this critical topic.

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

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