Parks advocates tear into a de Blasio-backed parks proposal
Parks advocates are speaking out against a bill, endorsed by Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, that they say will do harm to the city's best-kept parks while allowing the city to avoid committing to a healthy baseline level of capital funding.
The bill would lop 20 percent from parks conservancy budgets and redistribute that money to poorer parks.
“I just can’t even stomach the thought of losing 20 percent of our budget,” Tupper Thomas, the founder and since-retired head of the Prospect Park Alliance, told an audience of park advocates during a Thursday-afternoon forum at the George Soros-backed Talking Transition tent in SoHo.
The Alliance, she said, would have to cut $1 million from its budget, which would translate into 14 or 15 jobs, most of them in park maintenance.
The bill, which was sponsored by State Senator Dan Squadron, a Democrat from Brooklyn, would require all park conservancies with annual operating budgets of $5 million or more to put 20 percent of those budgets into a “neighborhood parks alliance fund,” whose board would then redistribute the money to parks it identified as needier.
Squadron, at the same forum, estimated that the bill would bring in maybe $15 million a year. This number provided more ammunition for the critics.
"Honestly, $10 to $15 million, if we think that’s solving anything, I mean as you said, that's a pittance," said Holly Leicht, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks and the moderator of Thursday's forum. "That’s three comfort stations. And how you choose the parks that that'll be in, I don’t know."
The legislation dovetails nicely with de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” campaign theme; one of those cities has nice parks, the other does not. They are not funded equally.
The bill might also absolve the next mayor from having to use the city's scarce resources to address what advocates argue is the larger issue with parks funding—the lack of a healthy baseline capital budget.
“Since at least the Giuliani administration, the parks department has not had a capital budget to allocate at its own discretion," said Leicht.
That means that the department instead will continue to have to rely for much of its funding on the good will of individual elected officials, some of whom are interested in fixing up their neighborhood playgrounds, and some of whom are not.
"It is a very difficult way of doing business," said Adrian Benepe, the former parks commissioner and now director of city park development for the Trust for Public Land. "And I think that if there were some baseline, maybe as little as $50 million but maybe more like $100 or $200 million. ...There are these holes in the parks and recreation network that if the parks department were able to call the shots, those holes would get filled.”
According to an analysis by New Yorkers for Parks, the de Blasio-backed Squadron bill would impact five conservancies—Central Park's, the High Line's, Prospect Park's, Randall's Island's, and Asphalt Green's.
“Why did you target existing, successful conservancies as the focal point for this issue?” Leicht asked Squadron.
Squadron tried to reframe the question.
“Why did we really open our arms and try to bring them into the fold of the larger parks network to deal with this issue?” he asked.
“Well, opening the arms is different than tithing them, right?” said Leicht, pointing out that, “every single person I’ve talked to that’s associated with an existing public-private partnership has said [the bill] will undoubtedly chill their donations and create significant problems for them in their future fundraising and in some cases really threaten their sustainability."
“One of the great things about my proposal is I’ve had some of the same conversations you have," he said. "People think that it’s absolutely insane, the 20 percent. And I’ve had other people tell me that I’m a rampant privatizer because it’s not 50 percent or 75 percent.”
Squadron called the 20 percent “a great bogeyman.”
Leicht told him he had “created and polarized this issue unnecessarily by putting the 20 percent in it.”
And so on.
“If we said to the Brooklyn Museum, you know you’ve done a great job fund-raising, but you know, we’re gonna take 10 or 20 percent of your money and reallocate it to the Queens Museum, because they haven’t done quite as good of a job of fund-raising, or Jennifer Raab has done an extraordinary job raising money for Hunter College, and you know what, let’s take some of that $40 million she brought in this year and reallocate to the Bronx Community College because they need the money more," said Benepe. "That's not the way democracy works. They’re both public institutions. One raises money, the other doesn’t as much.”
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