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Urban parks panel recommends city hire additional maintenance staff

Friday, October 21, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin is in dire need of maintenance staff for its parks, according to a report by the Urban Parks Stakeholder Group.


City Council created the stakeholder group in November 2009 in order to determine what it would take to have a park within walking distance for every resident of Austin. With both the Downtown and Comprehensive Plans stalled out for the time being, Council heard a briefing Thursday from the Urban Parks work group that might provide food for thought for when the plans return to chambers.


The working group recommended that the city provide funding for additional park maintenance staff and include $25 million in the next bond referendum for acquisition and development of parks. They also recommended that the city ask the legislature to grant the authority to adopt a property tax levy dedicated to parks.


According to Lynn Osgood, a landscape designer who represented the Urban Parks Workgroup, the area most critically in need of improvement is maintenance staff, which currently consists of one worker for every 175 acres of park, instead of one for the national average 75 acres. According to Ricardo Soliz with the Parks Department, meeting this goal would mean an addition of over 200 full-time positions.


“This is the critical thing that I want to bring attention to,” said Osgood. “One of the major things we found in the report is, as a city, how much we need to improve in terms of our maintenance. Out of all national cities, Austin is only sixty-fifth in terms of funding for park operations.”


“It is not possible to keep acquiring parks, and have them be good, vibrant community assets, if we cannot get the maintenance funding behind them,” said Osgood.


“The recommendation of 200 new maintenance employees at $35,000, by my math that comes out to something like $7 million dollars a year just in salary,” said Council Member Chris Riley, who asked if the group looked at different ways at arriving at a solution to the maintenance deficit.


“I think that goal of just getting to the national average is a solid one,” said Osgood. “We’re so far behind that number that just aiming for that is huge.”


City Council adopted a goal in November of 2009 that every citizen should be within walking distance of a park. Currently, this is only true for 37 percent of Austinites.


In fact, according to the presentation, the city is still trying to meet a goal set in 1983 of having a park within one-mile of all residents. Having a park within walking distance is a goal that is a bit loftier – within one-quarter mile in the urban core, and one-half mile outside of the urban core.*


Austin ranks 52 out of 75 cities in parks per capita., a problem the work group suggests could be solved by acquiring more small urban “pocket” parks, particularly in the small rapidly growing transit corridors.


In terms of implementation, the group suggested the city develop a ten-year plan and pursue public-private partnerships, both things that Osgood suggested might best be handled within the Parks and Recreation Department.


“The details that need to be addressed are many, and I think that is beyond the scope of a citizen working group. I think we definitely care about the issue and would be available for it, but I think in terms of the larger scope, there’s a lot on the plate,” said Osgood.

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