At Tuesday’s public hearings for the 2013 Parks & Recreation budget, a cadre of activists wearing green shirts and brandishing signs were joined by a literal peanut (as in wee) gallery (as in balcony) of school kids who periodically chanted a clarion call of “Restore $8 million.”
The number referred to, roughly, Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposed $47.8 million budget for the department, which is an $8.2 million decrease from the $56 million operating budget that the Administration proposed for FY 2009.
That budget was subsequently cut, however, in response to the economic downturn and has never been restored.
All told, the Department has received $43 million less than what it was originally promised in the FY 2009-2013 Five Year Plan, according to the Philadelphia Parks Alliance.
Additionally, the Alliance claims, the Department never received monies that were promised to the parks after the tax paid by users of municipal parking lots was increased from 15% to 20% in 2008. (Last year, a bill to gradually reduce the tax again passed Council, but was vetoed by Mayor Nutter.)
Blame the economy, said Rebecca Rhynhart, City Budget Director, who was called to the hot seat by Council members.
“It isn’t dedicated to parks and rec,” she said of the parking tax revenue, “because we needed it to support general fund operations.”
She added that although things are changing, the entire pot still can’t be applied to the department’s operation because something else will suffer.
Council members also quizzed Michael DiBerardinis, Deputy Mayor for Environmental and Community Resources and Executive Director of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, who was flanked by his First Deputies Mark Focht (Parks) and Susan Slawson (Recreation), on staffing, safety, expenses, and revenues.
The tone was generally sympathetic and supportive, with freshmen councilmembers most often tackling the tougher questions.
Councilmember David Oh brought up the (unpopular) idea of pulling the newly-merged parks and rec departments out of the City’s sphere, while Councilmember Cindy Bass questioned whether the Department’s purview overlapped that of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (also an unpopular thought, and one that was revealed to have little factual grounding).
Another newcomer, Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, was the first to press Reinhart on the parking tax revenues, while Councilmember Mark Squilla asked for clarification on preventative maintenance issues.
DiBerardinis said such matters were usually addressed only when something was specifically being repaired, admitting that the department was “not consistently strong” in this area.
Rhynhart added that a pilot program is now in place at the police and fire properties to track cost savings (if any) realized by preventative maintenance and that if the plan proves worthy of extending, parks and rec would be next in line for such attention.
“So, can we get things fixed now?” asked Squilla. “If I said ‘we get everything done when it needs to be done,’ I wouldn’t be telling the truth,” DiBerardinis responded.
During the second round of questions and comments, it was Squilla who — after asserting his own commitment to the park — predicted “a lot of people on Council are going to advocate for more money.
If so, the news will please the ordinary park goers and tenders who lined the halls outside Council chambers.
One, Derek Freres, who serves as a board member on three Friends groups — those dedicated to Schuylkill River Park, Fitler Square and Rittenhouse Square — said that even on their relatively posh turf both programming and equipment have suffered.
“At Schuylkill, they’ve closed the rec center on Saturdays due to lack of funds,” he said. “That’s when kids need it the most!”
And at the same park, he said, it was left to neighbors to raise the $600 needed to purchase a part (which was installed by the Department) to repair a cracked slide.
Good parks raise the neighborhoods, added Lauren Bornfriend, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance. “When they’re not funded, though, parks drag neighborhoods down.”
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