Clear-Cutting at Parks & Rec

Budget Pruning Kills Horticulture Unit

Marla Evans bends over a mulch pail, scooping out the rich peat and bark onto the base of one of Congress Avenue's many trees. Downtown pedestrians walk by, some stopping briefly to look, and then continue on. People waiting at the bus stop sit on the bench under the tree's shade, and watch Evans and her colleague, Arthur Ozuna, tend to the Mountain Laurels in the nearby large planter decorated with Texas stars. Ozuna grabs another bag of compost from the back of the old, green city Parks truck, sets it down, and takes out a cigarette. The 15 or so minutes Evans and Ozuna spare to talk with a reporter is a well-deserved break -- it's 3pm, and they've been at this since early morning, moving all across downtown to maintain the countless flowerbeds, potted plants, and trees they helped install. There's still the whole of Congress Avenue to finish, and another stop at the beds around the Parks & Recreation Department (PARD) building before knocking off for the day.

Nothing punctuates our conversation more than the axiom, "I love what I do." And nothing makes a person more appreciative of doing what they love than the prospect of losing it. After seven years each on the job as PARD horticulturists (by experience, not degree), the long-time city employees Evans (with 14 years) and Ozuna (23 years) will soon be performing more mundane tasks, probably mowing and cleaning up trash. As part of this year's proposed PARD budget, the four full-time and one part-time positions in the horticulture unit are being eliminated and transferred to vacant maintenance positions.

The dismantling of the unit is only one among many cuts in a department that has seen better days financially. No other city department seems more like the ugly stepchild come budget time than PARD. Since 1986, despite taking on nearly 4,000 more acres of parkland, and 7,000 acres of open space for the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, PARD has seen its budget decrease by 2%, compared to a 23% increase in parkland acquisitions. Not to mention that the city has grown by almost 200,000 people -- many of whom were won over by Austin's beautiful landscape. In 1986, PARD's budget was $19.5 million, close to what it is today. But from 1987 through 1991, it fell to $15.9 million -- and a backlog in parks and equipment maintenance resulted. This year PARD gets about $19.2 million, and yes, it is a $100,000 increase over last year's allocation, but it doesn't match the need -- each PARD maintenance employee is now responsible for over 136 acres of the city's 21,000 acres of parkland. "There were more than 20 workers doing then [in 1986] what four and a half of us do today by ourselves," says Evans. The question now is, who will do it at all?

The elimination of the horticulture unit is an overall strategy by PARD this year to focus "only on basic services," according to spokesperson Jim Halbrook. "There will be an impact," he admits, but other Parks employees will care for some of the plants. Other PARD employees will try to "salvage some of the vegetation" is how PARD director Jesus Olivares expressed it in a letter to a concerned citizen last week. Halbrook is reluctant to say that tending to Austin's many gardens is no longer considered essential, especially considering that the unit cares for beautification projects in 75 sites, many of which are the most visible in the city -- Congress Avenue, Zilker Park, Barton Springs Pool, Auditorium Shores, Woolridge Park, Fiesta Gardens, city street medians, etc. The unit also performs a fire ant control program in the city's parks -- an activity that requires state licensing for application of pesticides. Yet when PARD staff was looking for cuts, Halbrook finally answers, "It was a program we were willing to start with."

A vague explanation at best, but Halbrook's cautiousness is probably earned -- last week's public hearing on the budget drew out several critics, not just of the city, but specifically of PARD. Turns out cutting the horticulture unit amounts to only $7,000 in savings for materials (flowers soil, tools) because the four-and-a-half employees will be transferred to equal paying vacant positions that could have been eliminated instead. In general, the department accepted a pretty lousy budget deal considering all the hoo-hah over the importance of parks and youth during the council campaigns.

Perhaps PARD should conduct an accountability session with the councilmembers who talk about the importance of parks and youth on the dais, and with those who campaigned on basic city services and specifically mentioned parks. At least one councilmember is "putting [her] money where her mouth is," as Evans wryly suggested city politicians do during our conversation. Newbie Beverly Griffith, as a former Parks Board member, is taking the lead on getting PARD what it deserves. "I think those four horticulture jobs are extremely important to keep in terms of economic development, as well as for a sense of place and our quality of life," she says. Griffith wants more than that, however. Her list of wants envisions a parks system with an emphasis on young Austinites. She wants $1.4 million added to PARD's budget this year to expand youth and adult programs, and the transfer to that department of some programs usually deemed public safety or school district material. Those additions would include:

* Community outreach after-school programs for ages 12-16 at 15 city recreation centers. The programs -- dealing with nature adventures, cultural arts, health and fitness, computer training, and tutoring -- are aimed at "latch-key" youths, and are expected to reach 9,000 of them. Estimated cost: $410,000;

* Reinstating the morning hours of operation for six recreation centers, hours that were eliminated four years ago due to budget cuts. The programs are aimed at parents and their small children, and would renew the "Tiny Tots" and "Mommy & Me" programs plus fitness classes. Estimated cost -- $328,000;

* Reinstating basic youth and adult recreation services at the St. John's neighborhood recreation center. Estimated cost: $50,000;

* Reinstating many of the playground supervision programs available during the 1970s aimed at kids ages 6-12. Estimated cost -- $381,000;

* Reinstating the summer teen recreation academy that provides tutoring and other activities for highschoolers that, like most of the other programs mentioned above, has been steadily cut down during the last 20 years due to low funds at PARD. Estimated cost: $126,000.

When Griffith proposed these ideas last week, the gasp among city budget officials was nearly audible, especially when she suggested that one of the ways to provide funding would be to give PARD a discount, or even a free ride, on utility fees such as electric and water and wastewater. PARD pays approximately $1.5 million in utility fees now, says Griffith council aide John Gilvar. "In addition, PARD has to pay someone part time now to do a financial analysis on those fees," he adds. "We're not the favorites of [city] staff right now -- we're asking a lot of questions about increases in other departments [in light of cuts at PARD]. That's not to say some of those increases are not justified, but we want to make sure they're needed right now."

Griffith probably does not have the four votes needed on the council to enact all $1.4 million of her additions, but at least support is building for the horticulture unit to be reinstated. Councilmembers Jackie Goodman and Daryl Slusher are both inclined to keep it. Telephone calls to the others on the council were not returned.

"Our urban natural beauty is what is driving our economic engine and what attracts people here and keeps people here," stresses Griffith. A solid argument, but the key to Griffith winning this budget battle may lie in her attempts to connect the parks with the prevention of crime -- particularly juvenile crime which, more than any other category of criminal activity, is on the rise in Austin. Certainly that kind of focus would give PARD more clout than it has ever had before. Gilvar notes that Griffith and PARD director Jesus Olivares worked on her additional programs list together, and that he supports the transfer of those and other anti-crime youth activities to his department. Asked what Olivares' reaction was to Griffith's suggestions, Gilvar replies, "He's been waiting for years for someone to suggest this."

An important element in making the parks system work for Austin is maintaining and encouraging the devotion most city workers at PARD feel for their work. For Darla Evans, the key to keeping PARD employees happy would be a renewed commitment to the department's own motto: "Making people happy through quality programs and beautiful parks." She says she'll fight to keep her horticulture unit together, "not just for my job, but for the service I provide to the citizens."

But even she'll admit to weariness, if only in an abstract way: "People get tired of fighting, and working hard." She rubs a soil-caked hand across her sweaty forehead, "PARD as a whole has been whittled away, yet that's what draws people here, dammit." Her frustration is amplified by the dry heat of the August day, and the knowledge that without the four of them, Austin just may not be quite as beautiful next year.

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