The Mayor’s Shameful Mismanagement of New York City’s Parks
New York City’s budget for the fiscal year 2021 was set at $88.2 billion, a major reduction in spending, with the COVID crisis responsible for a multi-billion-dollar budget gap. The Parks Department budget of $540 million is being cut by $84 million and the seasonal workforce of 1,700 people was not hired this summer. With access to large indoor spaces banned, the parks have become more important than ever in New York City. More people are using the parks than ever before, but instead of figuring out some way of increasing clean-up staff, Mayor Bill DeBlasio and his team of mismanagement experts are content to let the garbage pile up and rats and raccoons roam free through massive mountains of garbage. By saving a relatively small amount of money, the city government has created a large problem that has an impact on millions of New Yorkers.
New York City has been down this path before. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the city’s parks fell apart due to budget cuts and it took several decades and a determined effort to bring them back. Parks are a visible manifestation of the competence of New York City’s government. Their importance to the average New Yorker is never reflected in the city’s budget, but during a time when outdoor space is critical to our effort to combat COVID-19, the mayor has made no attempt to figure out some way to keep the parks clean and safe. Instead of making the parks less beautiful and inviting, we should be investing in them and encouraging people to visit them while wearing masks and maintaining social distance. The mayor’s lack of imagination, creativity and energy on this issue is nothing short of shameful. In a New York Times article this past weekend, Sarah Maslin Nir reported that parks:
“…maintenance hours have been reduced by 25,000 hours a week, according to the department, which uses an app to track chores. Maintenance crews are able to get to about 400 fewer sites per week, the department said. In McCarren Park, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for example, sunbathers lounged in knee-high grass last weekend, the result of a systemwide reduced mowing schedule. Even wealthier parks have not been fully spared: According to a spokeswoman for the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit organization that raises private money for that park, a drop in donations and in revenue from closed parks concessions made it necessary to reduce landscaping projects and divert resources to trash management. Mark Focht, the parks department’s deputy commissioner and chief operating officer, said that the combination of budget cuts and increased use has left the agency struggling to keep up with the trash. The department is launching an awareness campaign urging people to take their refuse with them and will have employees hand out garbage bags at sites throughout the city.”
The Parks Department’s awareness campaign and bag distribution program is a start, but where is the leadership and effort to generate resources needed to maintain the parks? A fundraising campaign to pay unemployed New Yorkers to clean up the parks is one idea. Getting the Sanitation Department to help pick up garbage in the parks is another. The governor is always eager to show up the mayor, maybe he can send some state parks workers to the city to help out.
As in all service cuts, low-income neighborhoods get hit the hardest. According to Sarah Maslin Nir:
“In a familiar pattern of economic inequity, many residents of underserved communities feel that their parks are the most tarnished. In Bronx Park, which contains the Bronx Zoo, Elizabeth Soto, 19, arrived at dawn on a recent Saturday to set up an outdoor baby shower for her aunt. But she had to head back home to get a rake and trash bags to pick up all the garbage: Butterfinger wrappers, charcoal briquettes and aluminum foil.”
While some people are not sold on the broken window theory — which states that low-level civil disorder left to fester leads to higher-level civil disorder — garbage in the parks, graffiti, smashed subway windows, increased gun violence, growing homelessness, vacant storefronts and out-migration are facts of life in DeBlasio’s New York City. It doesn’t really matter if one leads to the other. None of it is good. While reducing violence and homelessness during a pandemic and recession is complicated, picking up garbage and mowing park lawns is simple. It’s also relatively inexpensive.
With gyms and indoor public spaces closed, people are gravitating to parks in larger numbers than ever. For people who can’t afford a dacha in the mountains or a mansion by the beach, the parks are a place where they can walk, bring their children and run with their dogs. There probably has never been a more important moment for the city’s park system. They are reducing stress, enhancing mental and physical health and allowing New Yorkers to interact with each other, even if masks hide their smiles. In a budget of over $80 billion, I’m confident we could find $100 million for the parks. Perhaps we could start by cutting the number of staff in the mayor’s own office. According to the nonprofit Citizen’s Budget Commission, city government staffing has grown substantially under DeBlasio.
“Following the 2008 recession, the number of New York City full-time and full-time equivalent personnel decreased from a previous high of 311,018 in fiscal year 2008 to 293,550 in fiscal year 2012– a reduction of 17,468 or 5.6 percent…Since the fiscal year 2012 trough municipal employment grew to reach an all-time high of 326,739 at the end of fiscal year 2019– an increase of 33,189 or 11.3 percent. Fiscal year 2019 headcount was 15,721 positions greater than the prior peak in fiscal year 2008.”
From 2014 to 2019, Parks staffing has grown less than nearly all other departments from 7,302 to 7,460. While Parks staffing grew 2 percent, Corrections grew by 17 percent and Homeless Services by 25 percent. City spending has grown from $77 billion in fiscal year 2014 to $96 billion in fiscal year 2019 before the pandemic required cuts back to $88 and probably $86 billion this year. In the current climate, each department has been asked to cut their spending. I understand the need to spread the pain, my argument here is that the small-dollar savings in the parks budget are not worth making. The department was already a low priority before COVID-19 and it remains one today. But its small budget has a big impact on the average New Yorker.
When the mayor was traveling the country in his futile attempt to be elected president, his behavior made it clear that he had lost interest in being New York’s mayor. While re-opening the schools and reducing gun violence has been plagued by politics, complexity and incompetence, the parks issue is simple and literally begs for mayoral leadership. The mayor should recruit and lead an army of mask-wearing park clean-up volunteers. He should create a mobile clean-up crew and each weekend morning, should pick another park (or five parks!) and ask people in the community to join him and the crew in a cleanup event. The local media should be invited to come along and provide before-and-after visuals. A fundraising campaign should be undertaken to replace the cuts in this year’s budget and restore cleaning crews since the fall may well be as busy as the summer in the city’s parks. Perhaps the city could try a matching gift program: for each dollar of private money raised, the city will match it with a dollar of restored funding.
These are of course just examples of what could be done. I’m sure there are better ideas. But we need energy, vision, drive, creativity and leadership from New York’s government during this emergency. Whining about Donald Trump and the dysfunctional national congress and waiting for a federal bailout is a waste of time. New York has equipment, cleaning supplies and most of all, people to clean up the mess. We need to mobilize our communities to take ownership of our public spaces and responsibility for their maintenance.
Parks are an important resource in an environmentally sustainable city. They store stormwater, prevent the heat island effect, and absorb rather than produce greenhouse gasses. But they are also a democratizing feature of our cities. There are no luxury boxes or admissions fees in New York City’s parks. The parks are everyone’s backyard. For a mayor who talks about equity and income inequality, he should remember that parks are one of the few services we already have that provide a measure of equality, access and opportunity for all. They should be treasured rather than trashed.