Austin @ Large: No Picnic for PARD

When bad things happen to good departments -- or vice versa

Austin @ Large: No Picnic for PARD
Illustration By Doug Potter

Austin loves its parks, and consequently Austin loves its Parks and Recreation Department. Perhaps tough love is what's in order.

Consider: In the last year, PARD has given up control of the city's Balcones Canyonlands nature-preserve lands -- they've been folded in with the Water and Wastewater Utility program that manages the city's conservation lands over the aquifer. PARD is also giving up its own police department -- the new city budget sets in motion the process of folding the park police into the Austin Police Dept.

And before the end of the year, PARD will likely give up control of the city cultural contracts program, which disburses millions in hotel bed tax money to local artists. For the second year in a row, arts funding provided most of the fireworks of the budget season, and the system has reached a Platonic ideal -- nobody trusts or likes it, whether they benefit from it or not. Whether the consultant currently at work (under the auspices of the city auditor, not of PARD) recommends that the system be overhauled or simply tweaked, you can be pretty sure it's not going to be under PARD management. (Rumor has it that the City Council may resolve to this effect even before the consultant's report is finished.)

So the specter of the Incredible Shrinking PARD is now hard to ignore or explain away -- and was further emphasized by PARD's losses in the recent budget. Of all city departments -- including ones with far larger workforces -- PARD lost the most positions to staffing cuts. One of every three jobs cut from the General Fund was in the parks department. We unkindly suggested that -- if PARD Director Jesus Olivares was telling the truth when he said these cuts (of vacant positions, remember, not of warm bodies) weren't going to hurt service delivery -- maybe PARD was overstaffed before.

We'd love to ask Olivares himself, but PARD in recent years has become notorious for stonewalling the press, especially the Chronicle -- which seems incompatible with PARD's status as our core readers' favorite department (check out past "Best of Austin" readers' polls) and the political power of parks among the Austin center-left, quality-of-life-obsessed mainstream. Which leads to the real point here.

Behind the Trees

You can argue, as many have argued, that PARD should focus on its core mission and not have to worry about cranky modern dancers and vanishing songbirds. But the department is not saying goodbye to cultural contracts, or the park police, or even the BCP, because of organizational hygiene, but because of questions about its ability to manage these things properly. This may be another way of saying the same thing -- PARD's management of these programs is less-than-sterling because they lie outside its core mission. (For argument's sake, we'll assume that PARD handles its core mission effectively.) In which case we need to ask why they had them in the first place.

Two reasons, or two theories, emerge. One is that PARD is popular, and its advocates politically powerful, and thus the department has become bulletproof and has been allowed to build and maintain an empire. We've seen much the same thing happening with the APD and Austin Energy, and the reverse happening with planning and development, Health and Human Services, and at least historically with the Austin Public Library. Back when Jesus Garza was city manager, you could smell a faint scent of favoritism between departments, and we've been hearing grumblings for years about PARD's (or at least Olivares') supposedly too-comfortable relationship with Garza's City Hall. Now that Garza is gone and Toby Futrell is in, this theory goes, PARD is getting what it should have gotten long ago.

I don't know about that. Certainly, parks advocates don't feel PARD has enjoyed undue civic largess, although the reflexive belief among its fans -- that PARD is well-managed but underfunded, and that its fans need to donate much of their time and money to compensate -- could probably use some stricter scrutiny. And whatever Garza may have felt, the City Council -- and particularly über-parks-fan Beverly Griffith -- did more than its part to give PARD whatever political cover it needed, beginning when Griffith and Gus Garcia made PARD, and not Health and Human Services, the lead agency on their mid-Nineties Social Fabric Initiative.

End Mission Creep

That brings us to the second theory: PARD has been saddled with jobs it shouldn't have because City Hall hasn't done its job properly. With arts funding and with the BCP, PARD was entrusted with key pieces of Austin's self-concept that had no other place to go. Should not Austin, of all places, have a stand-alone environmental agency, instead of pieces strewn among at least five separate departments? And should not Austin have a stand-alone cultural affairs department, given its status as a hub of the cultural industries, instead of bits of activity here and there and not enough anywhere?

We can go further -- right back to the social fabric. Using PARD's citywide network of facilities and programs to meet social needs is laudable. Does that mean PARD has to be responsible for feeding seniors, helping them secure employment, and ensuring that kids make "positive life choices" -- all performance measures in the just-adopted budget? Don't we have a Health and Human Services department that does the same things? Futrell just got kicked around for trying (and ultimately failing) to restructure certain HHS functions where there was substantial overlap within that department. Don't they also overlap with PARD, and shouldn't a real "re-engineering" project consider the two together?

In either event, if PARD's downsizing-by-fire means that the city does certain important things better than it did before, kudos all around. But whether the problems lie within PARD or within City Hall, they represent mistakes that Austin should be careful not to repeat if it truly aims, in Futrell's phrase, to "work smarter."

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Parks and Recreation Department, PARD, Water and Wastewater Utility, Austin Police Department, Jesus Olivares, Balcones Canyonlands, Jesus Garza, Toby Futrell, Beverly Griffith, Gus Garcia, Health and Human Services

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