SF Chronicle: Funding shortage leaves S.F. parks decaying

FallingApart

By Lizzie Johnson

Sophia Wong, left, and Carissa Ortega, members of Greenagers, a Parks and Recreation youth group, chop away at overgrown vegetation on a hillside as they help clean up at Crocker Amazon park in San Francisco, CA Saturday, August 1, 2015. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Sophia Wong, left, and Carissa Ortega, members of Greenagers, a Parks and Recreation youth group, chop away at overgrown vegetation on a hillside as they help clean up at Crocker Amazon park in San Francisco, CA Saturday, August 1, 2015.

The needed improvements are seemingly endless — to rusted swings, leaking water fountains, cracked pavement and a playground that turns into an island every time it rains.

There’s never enough money to fix everything at John McLaren Park, said Mary Wong, who lives near the park and is president of the Excelsior District Improvement Association.

“Oh, the list is so long now,” she said. “The maintenance is backed up to the point that it’s ridiculous. The nice things we have had put in haven’t stayed nice over the years. It would take millions of dollars to take care of everything.”

But that likely won’t happen, because funding for San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department has dropped by nearly half over the past 15 years, despite a ballot measure intended to provide more money.

The Open Space Fund, a property tax set-aside, passed with 89 percent of the vote in March 2000. It earmarked money to supplement funds normally budgeted to the department. But since then, parks funding has fallen from 2.1 percent of the city budget as a whole to 1.2 percent.

That’s because investment in the department has not kept pace with the growing budget. And while the Open Space Fund has generated more revenue — it adds 2.5 cents onto every $100 of property value — it still isn’t enough to fill in the gaps. This fiscal year, it is expected to generate $47.8 million for the department, money that was supposed to be “in addition to” and not in replacement of general fund support.

Had the percentage of the general fund going to the department remained constant at 2.1 percent, it would be receiving $89 million this year, rather than $50 million, concludes a report by the San Francisco Parks Alliance, a nonprofit that supports the city’s parks. And Wong might be able to check off those needed renovations at McLaren Park.

Shortfall is growing

Concerns about Recreation and Park Department funding are not new. In 2011, SPUR, a local nonprofit that studies urban issues, found that the department needed about $30 million to $35 million in additional funding each year. The funding shortfall has grown to $40 million, the Parks Alliance report estimates.

Matt Householder, who is a neighbor of the park and member of the Crocker Amazon Playground Advisory Committee, talks about the work that needs to be done during a group clean up at Crocker Amazon park in San Francisco, CA Saturday, August 1, 2015. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Matt Householder, who is a neighbor of the park and member of the Crocker Amazon Playground Advisory Committee, talks about the work that needs to be done during a group clean up at Crocker Amazon park in San Francisco, CA Saturday, August 1, 2015.

“The way the city does its budgeting is leaving the department at a fundamental and perpetual disadvantage,” said Matthew O’Grady, chief executive of the Parks Alliance. “It has to compete against the human services mandates San Francisco carries as a county, and it always ends up at the back of the line. As a result, the Recreation and Park Department is falling further and further behind.”

The lag has caused a structural crisis within the department. There’s a backlog of more than 5,000 maintenance requests, which would cost $1.7 billion and take more than a year to address, assuming nothing new breaks.

And right now, there are only enough arborists to service each tree once every 105 years — a figure that should be closer to every 11 years for healthy trees.

The Prague St. steps are sunken and dilapidated and in need of repair at Crocker Amazon park in San Francisco, CA Saturday, August 1, 2015. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

The Prague St. steps are sunken and dilapidated and in need of repair at Crocker Amazon park in San Francisco, CA Saturday, August 1, 2015.

The budget issues came on the heels of a difficult budget downturn and a burgeoning population, said Phil Ginsburg, Recreation and Park Department director. About 15 percent of the city’s land is open space, he noted, which can be difficult to maintain year round.

Heavier use

“The conversation that is emerging among park advocates is not rebuilding, it’s about how to fix the things that are already broken,” Ginsburg said. “It suggests that our parks are being used more intensely by more people. We need to figure out how to ensure our parks are serving the needs of our growing city.”

Supervisor Mark Farrell is planning to propose a charter amendment, either through an increased budget set-aside or other revenue source, this fall.

Last month, he met with residents around the city to gather feedback on what should be prioritized if the parks were to receive the additional funding. The Parks Alliance is also running an online survey for park users to share what they think should be improved.

Lucian Szymkiewicz, left, and Harmony Baker, center, members of Greenagers, a Parks and Recreation youth group, clear away overgrown vegetation on a hillside as they help clean up at Crocker Amazon park in San Francisco, CA Saturday, August 1, 2015. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Lucian Szymkiewicz, left, and Harmony Baker, center, members of Greenagers, a Parks and Recreation youth group, clear away overgrown vegetation on a hillside as they help clean up at Crocker Amazon park in San Francisco, CA Saturday, August 1, 2015.

“When we have more people living in our city than ever before, the intensity and use of our parks means we can’t just keep the status quo,” Farrell said. “When I grew up in the city, every summer day was spent at the local park. To me, if you take a step back, parks are all about quality of life. We have to create clean and safe parks.”

Planning stages

He said he’s still not sure what form the new revenue measure will take.

“Whatever it turns out to be, the point is that, as a city, we need to prioritize this,” Farrell said. “We have to fix those rusty swings, pave our pathways, make sure the water fountains don’t leak and the trash is picked up. This will be a dedicated stream of funding for our parks that will impact every neighborhood in the city.”

And for Wong, it doesn’t sound like a bad plan. She wants to see all of the little things, which add up, fixed.

“Everybody supports parks, but who is going to pay for it?” Wong said. “We need a plan. Wear and tear will happen in the lifetime of our parks, especially since they are so beloved. It’s time to start maintaining and taking better care of them.”

To read the original article: San Francisco Chronicle