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Austin Parks: Trying to Fill the GAP

Group urges City Council to increase parks and rec budget

By Chase Hoffberger, Fri., Aug. 16, 2013

A fitness class at Zilker Park
A fitness class at Zilker Park
Photo by Jana Birchum

A coalition of park supporters called "Great Austin Parks" – comprised of members from 12 different groups, including the Austin Parks Foundation, Tree Folks, the Trail Foundation, the Shoal Creek Conservancy, Keep Austin Beautiful, and the Pease Park Conservancy – has spent the summer urging members of City Council to increase the Parks and Recreation Department budget by $4.75 million – money that would go on top of the already proposed $5.92 million outlined in the General Fund's summary of "unmet service demands" for PARD.

The advocated increase stems from an accumulating public outcry for greater attention towards forestry ($1.5 million), trails ($1.25 million), pools ($1 million), and maintenance ($1 million), with an emphasis on maintenance – and emphasizing sustainability over one-time expenditures.

"There are not enough maintenance people to take care of the parks that we already have," explained Lynn Osgood, a member of the Austin Parks and Recreation Board and charter member of GAP. "We're one of the lowest [cities] in the nation in terms of personnel we have per park acre. A lot of the maintenance personnel that is available focuses on central city, in the core, because there's such a density. That means that those parks farther out, the ones without supportive neighborhoods, are at a huge disadvantage."

Indeed, even if your own neighborhood park looks serviceable, there's a good chance the rest of the city's 206 have fared much worse. Austin parks are struggling by nearly every conceivable maintenance metric, beginning with manpower – in 2000-2001, PARD employed 159 full-time workers to maintain approximately 15,500 acres of land. In 2012-2013, 149 full-time employees have been charged with the upkeep of an estimated 19,500 acres – and ending with usable amenities.

Shoal Creek Conservancy Chairman Ted Siff said PARD work orders are backed up into the 300s. His Pease Park Conservancy counterpart Richard Craig reported that the city's having trouble stockpiling the paint for basketball courts' three-point lines. According to statistics compiled by PARD, over 150 flowerbeds, 68 park restrooms, 65 parking lots, and 37 tennis courts are in need of substantial refurbishing. Meanwhile, 190 of the 271 children's playscapes around town do not receive any daily service; 52% of those 271 have "reached the end of their useful life." There's not enough money in the budget to replace those playscapes, or the many public pools staring down the last legs of their 50-year lifespans. According to data sorted by ParkScore, a website that provides comprehensive rankings of the 50 largest cities in the country as they pertain to area parks, Austin is smack-dab in the middle, locked into a three-way tie with Dallas and Detroit – which last month declared itself bankrupt.

"Austin's loving its parks to death," says GAP member Jeb Boyt. "We love it. We value it. But we're not taking care of it and being the stewards that we need to be. We've been kicking the can down the road on this stuff." Boyt and his cohorts report that the group has received "general sympathy" from a number Council members currently reviewing the proposed budget for the next fiscal year, including Mike Martinez, Chris Riley, and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, and they met with Mayor Lee Leffingwell's aide Nancy Williams, though "she indicated that our ask was a difficult one," Craig wrote in an email, "and offered no encouragement for this budget cycle."

Maybe that's because a $4.75 million increase, while only an 8% hike from the current PARD budget, is largely unprecedented. Parks and libraries are generally the first to endure cuts during times of economic hardship, but, as Craig reiterated: "When the good times return, those cuts don't quite get restored to their former status."

Speaking with the Chronicle after a day of meetings and budget parsing, Cole acknowledged that parks are "definitely a high-need area," but she stressed that this year's not likely to see any spike in the budget for maintenance. "I think we should take a multiyear approach looking first at the staffing needs and operational needs," she said, adding that she foresees a tight budget year and isn't exactly sure where the money would come from. "Property taxes are the hardest to justify in this stage," she said.

"We need to take a look at performance measures and metrics on how we decide whether or not parks are being adequately maintained to our taxpayers' satisfaction," Cole continued, noting as well that budget decisions will come down to "the affordability of the facilities in need – if they're one-time items, they might become a part of this budget. We might have the flexibility to do that for one-time expenditures."

Which is ultimately like throwing a Band-Aid on a broken fire-hose. A new restroom looks great today, but give it 15 years of inadequate maintenance and we're back to square one. "Much like human health, park ecosystems need preventative care to stay healthy," says Eric Courchesne, program director for the Austin Parks Foundation. "The question isn't whether to spend this money in parks or not, but whether or not we spend this money now or end up spending substantially more on the same issues in the future."

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