Op-ed: Privatizing parks is a bad idea

Park it! Watchdog says let city manage greenspace

The newly opened first section of Brooklyn Bridge Park and Tupper Thomas’s pending retirement from Prospect Park have shed a light on Brooklyn parks — in particular the future of how they will be funded. Unfortunately, the future of park funding does not look bright under this administration.

Despite a $3-billion surplus this year, Mayor Bloomberg’s budget allocates only a fraction — just $ 239.1 million — of the money desperately needed to hire the skilled laborers, park enforcement, qualified managers, gardeners and recreation workers among other positions that every neighborhood deserves.

This is a $40-million cut in expense funding from budget from last year. As a percentage of the city’s budget, this would represent only 0.37 percent to maintain and operate parks. It’s a historic low for the agency responsible for 14 percent of the city’s land.

For decades, the public has been told that funding is not available for our public parks. This proposed budget is an unfortunate and constant reminder of how in both good economic times and bad, public funding for parks is simply not a priority. Our elected officials refuse to allocate adequate funding. The political will simply does not exist.

Until 1960, the Parks Department regularly received 1.4 percent of the city budget or greater. However, due to a drastic shift in priorities over the last 45 years, the department’s share of the city budget from tax levy funds has rapidly declined.

With increasing regularity, parks with permanent employees are those that benefit from significant private funds or alternate funding schemes. Unwilling to accept its Charter-mandated responsibilities for the care of its parks, the city has instead turned to the private sector.

In city parks today, adequate maintenance, programming and dedicated park enforcement now depends on what ZIP code you are in, and the willingness and ability of its citizens to raise and leverage private funds. With increasing regularity, the public is being asked to shoulder the municipal responsibility of managing and maintaining what is supposed to be a basic, essential city service — services for which we already pay taxes.

The city’s increasing reliance on these public/private partnerships has resulted in a vastly unequal distribution of services. It has quickly become “a tale of two cities.” Experience with public/private partnerships over the last 20 years has proven that private subsidies to individual parks has created an enormous gap between the haves and the have-nots, while ignoring the real problem — that our parks are not funded as an essential city service.

At the opening of the first section of Brooklyn Bridge Park last month, I asked the mayor to comment on the enormous disparity between the amount of maintenance that park is receiving and others.

“In terms of disparity,” the mayor responded, “the city does not have the money to have new parks and fund them.”

The mayor is able to get away with such statements in part because the public is not holding our electeds accountable.

Unless our elected officials and the public begin to speak up the future of park funding will be a combination of decreasing municipal funds and what ever funding schemes the administration is able to get away with.

Brooklyn’s more than 4,500 acres of parkland and its more than 2-1/2 million people deserve a lot more.

Geoffrey Croft is the president and founder of NYC Park Advocates, a non-profit, non-partisan watchdog group dedicated to increasing park services and expanding open space and public recreation.