FY16 Parks Department Executive Budget Opening Statement





MAY 26, 2015



Good afternoon. I would like to welcome everyone to today’s joint hearing of the Finance and Parks and Recreation Committees on the Fiscal 2016 Executive Budget for the Department of Parks and Recreation. My name is Mark Levine and I am the Chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee.

Today, we will hear testimony from the Department of Parks and Recreation on the Fiscal 2016 Executive Budget as it relates to the Department’s Expense and Capital Budgets and general agency operations.

New York City’s parks budget, once among our city’s highest fiscal priorities, never recovered from the severe cuts it suffered during the fiscal crisis of the 70s and 80s.  Today, while we surpass other major American cities in the size and scale of our parks network, we lag in the amount of resources we devote to this sprawling system.  In spending per acre, staffing per acre, and portion of the total city budget devoted to parks, New York City sadly ranks far from the top of the pack nationally.

Despite a long period of stagnant expense budgets, our parks system has improved considerably over the last several years due to significant capital investments, public safety improvements, and an increased focus on tracking maintenance levels, among other factors.  The Department has achieved this success despite fiscal challenges, thanks to a talented staff, an army of dedicated volunteers throughout the city, and private contributions to supplement the lack of public funds.

But stretching a dollar only goes so far.  And New Yorkers who are not fortunate enough to live next to a park which receives significant private contributions face the realities of our city’s underinvestment in parks every day. They see it in the scarcity of PEP officers, park rangers, and playground staff. They see it in broken water fountains, less-than-sanitary comfort stations, and unrestored natural areas.

The mayor’s executive expense budget for FY2016 does not substantially alter this reality.  Totalling $442 million, it amounts to just 0.56% of overall City spending.  This budget does, however, contain a number of important pieces of good news for New Yorkers who love parks, including baselining of two budget items for which the Council allocated funds last year.  These are:

  • $5 million for Park Enforcement Patrol officers, a restoration which will avoid the need for layoffs in this critical workforce; and

  • $2.6 million for tree pruning, which will allow the parks department to maintain a 7-year cycle for street tree pruning.

The Executive Budget also provides an additional $3.1 million in baseline funding for the repair of sidewalks damaged by trees as called for in the Council’s response to the Mayor’s Preliminary Budget. This doubles the amount of funding that was already included in the budget and bring us to a total of $6.1 million for sidewalk repairs.

Unfortunately, the executive budget fails to baseline the $8.7 million the Council provided last year to increase the ranks of gardeners and maintenance workers.  If these funds are not restored it will result in the layoff of 150 workers come July 1st, with a negative impact on the department’s ability to ensure well-maintained parks.

The executive budget also failed to baseline $750,000 in the parks equity initiative, which supports neighborhood parks stewardship groups.  Failure to restore this funding will leave this city without an important tool for boosting those “friends of” groups which do not benefit from large amounts of funding from private donors.

The effective cuts in maintenance workers and the parks equity program are particularly perplexing since most of these funds have been used this year to support the mayor’s Community Parks Initiative.

The executive budget failed to fund several additional priorities which the Council identified in its response to the preliminary budget. These include:

  • Increasing funding for the GreenThumb Program to $1 million in order to support the City’s more than 600 community gardens;

  • Including $5.4 million to hire over 200 new Playground Associates;

  • Including $750,000 for tree stump removal; and

  • Increased funding to keep city pools and beaches open past Labor Day, the current end of the season.

The mayor recently released the City’s final ten-year capital strategy, covering the period from 2016 to 2025.  Here again the news for parks is mixed.  Happily, funding for a second round of CPI parks is included, at $151 million, allowing for much-needed renovations of 34 small parks and playgrounds in low-income areas.  The capital plan also includes $50 million for the “parks without borders” initiative.

As welcome as these investments are, they amount to far less than was spent in the previous ten-year period on PlaNYC components such as renovation of eight major regional parks, the schoolyards-to-playgrounds program, and the million trees initiative--to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of dollars the City invested in the past decade in the development of spectacular new parks like the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge, and Governor’s Island.

Instead of ending the era of large-scale, visionary parks investments, why not continue it, but with a focus on parts of the city which have so often been left behind? Why not make bold capital investments to bring to life the Queensway, or the Lowline, or open up access to North Brother Island off the coast of the South Bronx?

Why not another round of investment in mid-sized parks like St. Mary’s in the South Bronx or Astoria Park in Queens o?  These mid-sized parks have capital needs in the tens of millions of dollars each, too much to be funded by a Council Member’s discretionary allocation.  But as regional anchors they undoubtedly deserve investment from the City.

With 15 neighborhoods set to be upzoned in the coming years, and the pace of new construction accelerating throughout the city, it is critical that we consider the need for new open space.  We will not have achieved our goal of equity if we create affordable housing for low-income New Yorkers but leave them without adequate park space--a resource which is absolutely essential to healthy neighborhoods.

As the spectacular new plan for Pier 54 shows, private contributions are an increasingly viable source of funding for parks in our city’s better-off areas.  But  low- and moderate-income neighborhoods must rely overwhelmingly on public dollars for major parks projects.  If the City doesn’t step up with significant capital investments in these communities, the parks equity gap will only continue to grow.

I look forward to hearing the administration’s perspective on these issues, and on the Parks budget as a whole.  

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

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