Planning Commission, Parks and Rec take budget hits

May 21, 2010

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

The latest budget proposal released by Mayor Michael Nutter Thursday jeopardizes plans to clean up parks and recreation facilities, add programs and plant and maintain more street trees. It also could mean a possible delay in the production of the comprehensive plan that will guide land use into the future.

The proposal would cut $2.5 million in new Department of Parks and Recreation funding, thus eliminating 44 new positions.  It would also trim $200,000 from the City Planning Commission budget that was designed to pay for three new planners to work on Plan2035, the city’s long-range comprehensive land use plan.

These cuts are part of an overall proposed decrease of $20 million in the city’s fiscal year 2011 expenditures, which would eliminate 339 positions and include reductions in fire, police and library service.

Representatives of city planning, parks and rec, and a parks and rec advocacy group are holding on to hope that the latest version of the budget won’t become the final budget.  Here’s what they say is at stake if the cuts stay in place.

Planned parks and rec improvements, street trees, would be lost

Patrick Morgan, spokesman for parks and rec commissioner Michael DiBerardinis, said his department had planned to hire new employees in various positions throughout the system. This includes workers who would clean and maintain parks and rec centers, take care of ball fields and run programs at parks, rec centers and facilities for older adults and people with special needs, Morgan said. It would also have paid for more staff to plant and maintain street trees.

Under a new tree intiative, the parks and rec department had plans to plant at least 5,800 new trees this year, he said. It’s not that the proposed cuts mean there would be no money to buy trees, he said. It means there wouldn’t be enough people to plant and care for them.

“Without the added positions, you got what you got,” Morgan said. “There would still be a street tree backlog, still a maintenance backlog, still cleanliness issues at the facilities. The staff  has been pushed to the brink.”

Lauren Bornfriend, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, which advocates for the park system, pointed out that even if the $2.5 million survives and stays in the budget, parks and rec funding will remain $2.9 million below what it was in fiscal year 2008.

With the latest budget figures being so new, the Alliance is still analyzing them, and deciding what to do, Bornfriend said. But  “we’re not happy about it. We don’t think it’s the right way to go,” she said. With the new parks and rec structure and leadership in place, there is tremendous opportunity now to use public investment to leverage additional investment by the private sector and foundations, she said.  “Every neighborhood in the city could become better, healthier and more beautiful,” she said.

Pennsylvania Horticutural Society President Drew Becher said Bornfriend is right about public investment stimulating private donations. He saw that when he oversaw New York’s tree-planting efforts. “One of the major reasons why corporations and foundations wanted to give was a committment from the city side,” he said.

Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis talks about possible budget cuts at recent commission meeting.

Becher said should the proposed budget cuts solidify, his organization – and its army of 3,500 volunteer tree tenders – would certainly do what they can to assist the parks and recreation department. But they cannot replace the labor of the employees who won’t be hired if the current plan sticks, he said.

Bornfriend said it’s important to remember that trees are not just about beauty. They improve the air quailty, which among other things improves the lives of people with asthma. They make people feel better mentally, and studies have shown that just seeing a tree out a hospital window can help a patient heal faster. Trees also help lower air conditioning costs, she said.

Bornfriend said that Philadelphia’s average tree coverage is low compared to that of other cities, and that some neighborhoods are especially lacking in tree canopy.

Mayor Nutter delivers good news to Parks and Recreation Commission in March.

Planners would have to do more with existing staff, and that could cost time

The cuts proposed for the planning commission also would yield a hiring freeze, said deputy executive director Gary Jastrzab. There is a City Planner II examination – basically a job interview session – set up for June 10-11. The city has received 200 applications to take the exam – probably the largest number ever, Jastrzab said. The money that is now on the chopping block would have allowed the planning commission to hire three top performers on the exam, Jastrzab said.

After July 1, those planners would have started working on the Philadelphia2035 comprehensive land use plan. One of their tasks would have been conducting a comprehensive study of the city’s public facilities, including things like recreation centers, police and fire stations,  trash disposal yards and fleet management repair facilities, Jastrzab said.

The city’s current comprehensive plan was done in the 1960s, when the city’s population was projected to grow to 2.5 million. Facilities were built to support that number, but the city’s actual population is now closer to 1.5 million. “For the last decade or so, we have had trouble keeping our facilities adequately maintained,” Jastrzab said. The new facilities study would look at the facilities’ state of repair, the populations they serve and their locations. The planners would then make recommendations for “renewing, closing or consolidiating facilities into new, more modern ones,” he said.

This work, and the other work involved in Philadephia2035 – including a series public input meetings that will start next week – will still happen, Jastrzab said. But if the proposed cuts stick, existing staff will have to do all of the work. There are only so many people, and so many hours in the day, he said. So chances are good that the plan, now scheduled to be completed at the end of this calendar year and rolled out in the spring, will take more time than anticipated.

Holding out hope

Jastrzab, Morgan, Becher and Bornfriend all hope the cuts won’t actually be made.

“It’s not over til it’s over,” Jastrzab said. “Like any budget process, things can change at the last minute.”  Really, even after the last minute, during the next fiscal year, money could be shifted from one line item to another, or the economy could improve and cuts could be restored, he said.

Becher said PHS volunteers are likely to lobby the city to restore the budget.

The way Morgan sees it, it’s all in the hands of city council.

“Basically, what happened yesterday is that council passed a budget, but didn’t pass enough (revenue) to fund it,” he said, and that meant the administration had to make cuts.

Council has to work with the mayor to fix things, Morgan said. “Without legislative action, the fix is the cuts – or the city runs out of money.”

But City Council Spokesman Anthony Radwanski said that as far as council is concerned, their budget work is complete. “They feel they provided enough money,” he said. “Their position is these cuts are not necessary.”

The budget council passed included a $42.5 million operating cushion for fiscal year 2011. The Econsult Corporation, which was hired by council to make budget recommendations, wrote in its report that a cushion “in the $70 to $80 million range is an important target.”

Radwanski said that is an “ideal” target, but in these tough economic times, council feels that $42.5 million is sufficient, hence, the cuts are unnecessary.

Due to the Memorial Day holiday, council is not scheduled to meet again until June 3.

PCPC Philadelphia 2035 update Part 1

PCPC Philadelphia 2035 update Part 2

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