PARKS COMMITTEE HEARS LEVINE AND LANDER BILL TO INCREASE TRANSPARENCY IN CONSERVANCY SPENDING
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, January 29th 2014
CONTACT: Jordan Levine 917-842-5748 / [email protected]
NEW YORK -- Today, the City Council’s Committee on Parks and Recreation heard Council Member Lander and Levine's bill, Intro 384-A, which aims to clarify and improve the current law on the reporting of private funding to City parks.
In 2008, the City Council enacted Local Law 28, intended to increase reporting on these donations and their sources, a first step toward integrating conservancy spending into the broader parks system. The Parks Department’s interpretation of the law, however, has resulted in annual reports that only include money transferred from conservancies to the Parks Department.
The hearing provided an opportunity for the Parks Committee and Department of Parks and Recreation to discuss Intro 384-A, which would help to identify the nearly $100 million in conservancy spending that goes unreported annually. By understanding how money is spent to maintain our parks, New York City can better allocate funding to those that need it most. The end result of more efficient allocation of public parks dollars is a crucial part of achieving parks equity.
The full text of the bill is available here. Council Member Levine's opening remarks are below. A livestream, followed by an archived version of the hearing is available here.
Good Afternoon, my name is Mark Levine, and I am the Chair of the City Council’s Committee on Parks & Recreation. I want to welcome you to our hearing on Proposed Int. No 384-A, which would amend the existing requirement that the Parks Department (DPR) provide an annual report to the Council on private funding for City parks. It would require enhanced reporting from DPR including additional information on the annual expenditures made by conservancies with contracts to maintain city parks.
The origin of New York’s parks conservancies lies in the City’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s and ‘80s. Central Park felt this crisis acutely, suffering decades of neglect by the public sector. In response, a legion of volunteers, activists, and donors jumped in to turn around this treasured green space. They achieved success on a truly spectacular scale, and today Central Park is one of the world’s greatest public spaces. And their success inspired the creation of conservancies in over two dozen parks around the city.
The infusion of private resources into the conservancy parks, however, has far outpaced growth in public investment in the system as a whole. New York City’s sprawling network of nearly 2,000 neighborhood parks has been forced to survive on a parks budget which, as a percentage of the city’s total budget, is far less today than it was in decades past. This has created glaring--and in my opinion unacceptable--contrasts between the level of maintenance and services in parks in low- and moderate-income communities and the marquis, conservancy funded parks.
This disparity has inspired a movement to close the “parks equity” gap. And indeed this committee has focused for much of the past year on the pressing need to increase public funding to neighborhood parks--especially in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods--in order to lessen this disparity. We scored an important victory in this effort when the City Council devoted an additional $16 million to the parks budget for the current fiscal year. And the mayor’s Community Parks Initiative is, critically, helping to reverse neglect of 35 neighborhood parks.
But these measures, as important as they are, constitute no more than first steps toward the goal of closing a parks equity gap that is truly massive in scale.
In closing this gap we face a problem: we don’t actually know precisely how big it is. In fact we are missing two important pieces of information: 1) how much is being spent in conservancy parks, and 2) how much is being spent on a per-park basis by the City in the system’s remaining green spaces.
Councilmember Brad Lander and I have introduced two pieces of legislation to resolve each of these challenges. Intro 154 would require the Parks Department to report on the resources it allocates on a per-park basis. Commissioner Silver has in fact already taken important steps towards building the necessary internal systems to achieve this goal. I look forward to discussing this legislation in an upcoming hearing.
Today, we consider Intro 384-A, which focuses on reporting of conservancy funding. This bill is actually the Council’s second attempt to ensure this information comes to public light. In 2008, the Council passed Local Law 28 to increase transparency and reporting on funds donated directly to parks, or to the Parks Department by private sources. Its intent, in short, was to determine the amount of money that conservancies spend on the parks they maintain.
So what has this report told us over the years? Basically nothing. For example, it listed the revenue for Central Park in the most recent year as $175,000--less than one half of one percent of the actual sum. The report also contains no information at all on the Prospect Park Alliance, Friends of the High Line, Asphalt Green, New York Restoration Project, and many other conservancies.
How did this happen? The Parks Department has interpreted Local Law 28 as only requiring reporting on private funds that were directly donated to the department itself, and not the expenditures made by conservancies in the parks they manage.
We are here today to correct this.
Intro 384-A requires that going forward whenever the Parks Department renews its operating agreement with a conservancy it will require the reporting of expenditures on cycle with the City’s fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.
In the near term, before new contracts have been signed, our bill requires that DPR request the data and, if a conservancy refuses to provide it, the department will note this in its report. It is our hope that this would serve as sufficient incentive to ensure participation by all conservancies.
While basic financial data on conservancies can be found in publicly available tax filings, this information is not published until as much as 18 months after the period in question. Furthermore nearly half of conservancies use a fiscal year calendar that is distinct from the City’s. Intro 384-A would, for the first time, provide us with a comprehensive, consistent report of conservancy spending matched to the City’s own fiscal year.
I hope that our discussion today will examine this legislation in the context of the broader effort to more fully integrate conservancies into the parks system as a whole. Several of the largest conservancies have recently agreed to start providing--or increase their existing provision of--services and resources to parks in other parts of the city, with a focus on low-income neighborhoods. This is a welcome step in the right direction, one I hope will be further expanded in the future. At any rate the public should have an accounting for these services, which we currently do not.
I believe we should also explore creation of an office at the Parks Department dedicated to conservancy partnerships. This would facilitate negotiation of contracts and on-going monitoring and oversight. And such an office would serve as a central point of contact for conservancy questions and requests for assistance. I understand the Parks Department has taken at least some preliminary steps in this direction and I hope we hear more about that today.
I look forward to our discussion and intro 384-A, and to moving this legislation forward, and I’d now like to welcome the administration to present its testimony on this important topic.