Let’s make private park funding less private

| 10 Feb 2015 | 11:43

    By Geoffrey Croft

    As most people are acutely aware, our park system is enormously underfunded.

    The policy of allowing public parks in more affluent areas to be funded by private donations while most others languish due to a lack of public funds has further compounded the problem: It has created a wildly disparate park system — marked by separate and decidedly unequal facilities. And although these are citywide problems that affect virtually every segment of the population, it is no secret that the poorest, most underserved communities count a disproportionate number of the most severe issues.

    A new City Council bill seeks to increase transparency on part of the equity problem by tracking private funding going to parks. This is the city’s second attempt at trying to get this information.

    More than six years ago, the City Council passed the first law aimed at the same thing but the city refused to comply. The law was supposed to reveal the amount of private funds going into parks, shedding light on the disparity between public spaces in wealthy areas and the majority of parks, which rely solely on the city for funding -- in other words the haves and the have-nots. The legislation required the Parks Department to prepare an annual report that would detail the contributions of nonprofit park operators and other private donors on a park-by-park basis.

    The idea was based on a basic principle of good government: The public should know where private money is being spent on public property, where the money’s coming from, and what the funds are being used for.

    The bill was passed unanimously amid the growing controversy surrounding the enormous funds select parks receive as well as the influence private groups have over park decisions.

    A new bill introduced by Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), chair of the council’s Committee on Parks and Recreation, would require the tracking of private funds from 18 conservancies that have license agreements with the city. Despite repeated requests over the last several weeks, however, the Parks Department said they were unable to provide the list, stating they were finalizing it.

    The Parks Department has said that half of the city’s 1, 800 parks and playgrounds rely on private groups to provide at least some funds for maintenance. It is impossible to say just how much is spent annually, as the estimates from the Parks Department change frequently and fluctuate wildly. Over the last few years Parks’ officials have put the private spending at between $76 million and $165 million annually. Park officials put the figure at $125 million at a recent hearing.

    Levine’s bill should be supported city-wide but it needs to be tweaked.

    As currently written the bill would exclude hundreds of private groups and government-affiliated corporations that raise money and contribute funds to parks.

    The new legislation also excludes non-conservancy funds that contribute millions collectively to specific parks for different services. These private funding sources include businesses, schools, Business Improvement Districts, and money collected from numerous Trust in Agency accounts.

    The city has also allowed some public private partnership groups to illegally divert concession revenues and event fees collected from renting park space from the city’s general fund. We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars over the years. These funds would largely be excluded under the bill’s existing language.

    To ensure an accurate accounting, ALL expense and capital funding sources in parks should be revealed, not just those that go through the Parks Department or that come from the 18 conservancies currently covered in the bill.

    At a recent hearing, Levine also announced a second park-funding transparency bill he was introducing with Council member Brad Lander: Intro 154 would require the Parks Department to report on the resources it allocates on a per-park basis. This should also be supported.

    While we are delighted that the new administration has adopted the principles of NYC Park Advocate’s more than decade-long campaign to bring “equity” to the park system, what is missing from the conversation, however, is a true commitment to achieving these very important goals.

    While the new bill would shed light on where non city dollars are going it does not address the root of the equity problem.

    The administration needs to take responsibility by dramatically increasing the tax-levy budget allocated to the Parks Department to hire the employees that are so desperately needed to maintain, program and secure our vast park system. They must also ensure the funds are distributed according to need — not on politics or private interests — while demanding accountability from an agency that is in desperate need of reform. Until the city takes responsibility and the public demands it. nothing will change.

    Geoffrey Croft, is the founder of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates. A version of this Op-Ed can be found on Walk in the Park. http://awalkintheparknyc.blogspot.com